The Scarlet Professor is based on the true story of Newton Arvin, a nationally renowned literary critic and English professor at Smith College who was arrested in 1960 for possessing “beefcake” pornography. Arvin and his two of his colleagues—gay men living lives of secrecy in 1950s small-town New England—found themselves the victims of a national crusade initiated by U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield against “pornographic filth in the family mailbox,” a crusade taken up with obsessive cruelty by Sergeant John Regan of the Massachusetts State Police. Regan’s investigation resulted in the public humiliation and disgrace of Arvin and his colleagues, who lost their jobs and struggled to remake their careers amid the stigma of being labelled as homosexual. Arvin also found his intimate friendship with Ned Spofford, one of the accused, destroyed as a result of the investigation. A state Supreme Court decision eventually overturned the men’s convictions, marking a sea change in national attitudes towards privacy and civil liberties. Today, this nationally famous case is seen as an historical fulcrum, perched between the cultural McCarthyism of the 1950s and the “new world” of personal liberation ushered in by the 1960s.
This opera examines this moment through the character of Arvin, the subject of Barry Werth’s compelling and widely acclaimed biography. A brilliant literary critic, political radical, and former lover of Truman Capote, Arvin identified deeply with the book he wrote about most passionately: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with its depiction of sin, secrecy, and shame in small-town New England.
The opera takes place in the weeks following Arvin’s arrest, as his world unravels amid his being revealed as gay and his subsequent naming names to authorities. The erstwhile setting is Northampton Massachusetts State Hospital, where Arvin retreats from the world as public scandal envelops his name, but the true milieu of the opera is the inner landscape of Arvin’s mind, where flashbacks from his past, glimpses of his trial, and episodes from The Scarlet Letter collapse, collide, and explode in musical and theatrical color.
Punctuating Arvin’s hospital stay are appearances—real and imagined—from Helen Bacon, Smith faculty and defender of the accused; Hester Prynne, heroine of The Scarlet Letter; Ned Spofford, Sergeant Regan, a doctor seeking to cure Arvin’s “perversion,” and Truman Capote. The narrative of Arvin’s arrest and trial is braided with those of his four-year friendship with Spofford and of his literary companionship with Hawthorne’s heroine. The heightened realities of the episodes, the alchemical jumping around between worlds, the intense emotions of the characters’ experiences, the strangeness of the asylum milieu, the moments of comic counterpoint reflecting the absurdity of the cultural moment, the passionate stakes for Arvin and others, their journeys through extremes of betrayal, rage, shame, and love—all these cry out for a treatment in which characters sing.