In 1960, nationally renowned literary critic and Smith College professor Newton Arvin was arrested and tried for possessing homosexual pornography. On Sunday, June 7, his story came to the Buckley Recital Hall stage in The Scarlet Professor, a new opera by composer Eric Sawyer, professor of music at Amherst, and librettist Harley Erdman, a theater professor at UMass Amherst.

Based on author Barry Werth’s 2001 biography of the same name, the opera, as Sawyer describes it, blends the human drama of men caught in a national crusade against perceived indecency with fantasy based on scenes from the book Arvin wrote about most passionately: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with its depiction of sin, secrecy and shame in small-town New England.

Today, Arvin’s nationally famous case is seen as a historical fulcrum, perched between the cultural McCarthyism of the 1950s and the “new world” of personal liberation ushered in by the 1960s. And, Sawyer says, it recounts social biases against gay people that are still very much relevant.

A darkly comic mix of history and fiction, the opera takes place in real time, in flashbacks and in Arvin’s mind. The main setting is the Northampton psychiatric hospital where Arvin was admitted for suicidal depression soon after his arrest. The scenes range from tragic to amusing to devastating to inspiring. “You want intensely emotional situations for opera,” Sawyer explains.

To bring Arvin’s story to the stage, Sawyer and Erdman worked with director Ron Bashford, assistant professor of theater and dance at Amherst; conductor Gregory W. Brown ’98, who has led numerous choral performances in the region; and a cast of seven leading opera vocalists from New York and New England, including Daniel Kamalić, who plays Arvin. 

The June 7 performance included the first five scenes of the opera, followed by a workshop discussion with Sawyer, Erdman and biographer Barry Werth. Sawyer, who has composed two other operas, says, “Comments from audience members in the past have resulted in changes and tweaks. It’s a chance to work out the kinks.”