Professor Eric Sawyer, the opera’s composer, at a rehearsal. He says the story is “well-suited to the medium of opera.” Photo by Skyhlur Tranquille ’18

On an otherwise normal fall day in 1960, police arrested a Smith College professor named Newton Arvin. A nationally renowned literary critic, he was detained and publicly humiliated for possessing homosexual erotica, then a crime that carried a maximum five-year prison sentence.

This September, nearly six decades later, two Amherst professors brought Arvin’s story to life on stage in The Scarlet Professor, a new opera composed by Professor of Music Eric Sawyer and directed by Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Ron Bashford ’88. 

“It’s part of our history,” Bashford says, “and resonates with things we are thinking about today.”

Based on Northampton writer Barry Werth’s book of the same name, the opera blends real human drama with scenes from the novel Arvin wrote about most passionately: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

“Having a literary critic as a central character calls for dramatizing the life of the mind,” says Sawyer, “a wonderful challenge and one well-suited to the medium of opera.”

A darkly comic mix of history and fiction, this new opera takes place in the days surrounding the professor’s detention. The setting is the Massachusetts state mental hospital where Arvin voluntarily committed himself following his arrest.

The Scarlet Professor was presented by professional performers Sept. 15–17 and by Five College students Sept. 23–24. The dual casting, Bashford says, allowed professionals to realize the premiere as fully as possible, while also giving students the benefit of rehearsing alongside professionals and having their own performances. 

Several Amherst students were involved behind the scenes, too. Theater and dance major Julia Lauren Thompson ’19, for example, began assisting Sawyer last year, researching Arvin’s history and organizing auditions. 

Thompson sees the opera’s themes as particularly relevant today: “Arvin was a brilliant, successful man trapped in a loneliness largely of his own making. The opera invites thinking about how to be a better friend and colleague in the face of hardship.”


Rachel Rogol covers the arts in the Amherst communications office.