the actor who plays Newton Arvin sitting on a single bed with white sheets on a gray stage, behind him, a large, gray silhouette of a man's profile looking up
Tenor William Hite, center, stars as the opera's protagonist, Newton Arvin.

In September 1960, nationally renowned literary critic and Smith College professor Newton Arvin was arrested and publicly humiliated for possessing homosexual erotica, then a crime that carried a maximum five-year prison sentence.

This September, nearly six decades later, Arvin’s story will be brought to life on stage in The Scarlet Professor, a new opera composed by Amherst 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 will resonate with things we are thinking about today.”

Director Ron Bashford talking with student assistant
Director Ron Bashford working with assistant director William Denzel Wood ’18.

Based on Northampton writer Barry Werths book of the same name, the opera blends real human drama with scenes from the 1850 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, the opera takes place in real time, in flashbacks and in Arvin’s mind. The setting is the Massachusetts state mental hospital where Arvin voluntarily committed himself after his arrest.

Eric Sawyer at the piano
Composer Eric Sawyer at the piano during rehearsals.

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

Amherst students are also involved behind the scenes. Allison Bennett ’18, Abi Hernandez ’19, Matthew Holliday ’19, Angelita-Sophina Flores ’20, Denison Marsland-Rello ’18, Soon Young Shimizu ’20, Julia Lauren Thompson ’19 and William Denzel Wood ’18 are providing technical, marketing and production assistance. Thompson, a theater and dance major from Watertown, Mass., began assisting Sawyer last fall, researching Arvin’s history and organizing auditions. This fall, she’ll serve as assistant lighting designer to Matthew Adelson, a lighting designer and the production manager for the Five College Dance Department.

Student interns working in the costume shop
Matthew Holliday ’19 and Allison Bennett ’18 (left) and Angelita-Sophina Flores ’20 (right) working on the opera’s costumes.

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,” she says. “The opera invites thinking about how to be a better friend and colleague in the face of hardship.”

Holliday, a black studies and theater and dance major from Brooklyn, N.Y., hopes audiences will reflect on societal views of privacy and sexuality, then and now. “These events took place only a little more than 50 years ago,” he says. “There is still plenty of work to be done before men and women like Arvin are accepted.”

As for Flores, a theater and dance major from Portland, Ore., she hopes audiences will appreciate the set design. “I hope they can tell how much work went into the gigantic head onstage,” she says, “and that it nearly killed us.”

Conductor on left, actors on right
Conductor Eduardo Leandro, on left, cast rehearsing, on right.

The Scarlet Professor will be performed by a professional cast on Friday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 17, at 3 p.m. Five College students perform the following weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 24, at 3 p.m. All performances take place at Smith College, in Theater 14 of the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, visit:


Portrait of Newton Arvin

Related Symposium

A public symposium held in conjunction with the opera takes places on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Sage Hall at Smith College.