Opera Revisits 57-Year-Old 'Smut' Scandal At Smith College

Download Audio
A scene from the rehearsals of "The Scarlet Professor." (Courtesy Daniel Keller)
A scene from the rehearsals of "The Scarlet Professor." (Courtesy Daniel Keller)

In 1960, a famous literature professor at Smith College was arrested for having gay pornographic materials in his Northampton, Massachusetts, apartment.

Four decades later, that scandal was the basis of a nonfiction book. Now the story is getting a new telling — an operatic one — on the very college campus where the original events took place.

During a recent rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" at Amherst College, about a dozen singers — professionals and students — gathered around. Choral director Gregory Brown led them through lyrics you don't often hear in opera.

"We'll start right on 'kinky,' " he told the group, as they prepared to sing in unison. "One-two-three — 'kinky, stinky, commie, finkie...' "

The Five College Opera production is based on Northampton writer Barry Werth's book of the same name.

"They've magically, I think, transformed this to a kind of musical theater piece," Werth said, "very different from the treatment I gave it, but in its bones, very close to the actual truth of the events."

Werth spent years researching the arrest of Smith College English professor Newton Arvin, who was an expert on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, "The Scarlet Letter."

On Labor Day weekend in 1960, Arvin's apartment was raided by the Massachusetts police anti-smut unit and the local postmaster. They found beefcake magazines as well as Arvin's sexual journals.

The incident led to Arvin's public humiliation, his outing of two close colleagues as gay, the end of all their careers at Smith and, eventually, Werth said, two pivotal court decisions on obscenity and privacy — though too late to help Arvin.

"In 1960, there was a purity binge in the United States," Werth said. "McCarthyism as a political movement was spent, but it was picked up with a kind of puritanical zeal by social conservatives, both on a national level and in Massachusetts."

After reading Werth's book, composer Eric Sawyer of Amherst College and lyricist Harley Erdman of UMass Amherst decided to turn it into an opera. Like the book, the opera draws parallels between Arvin's public disgrace and that of Hawthorne's heroine, Hester Prynne, who was forced to wear the letter A on her dress, for adultery.

The opera — which stars UMass Amherst professor and tenor Bill Hite — tells Arvin's story mostly through flashbacks and his imagination, after he checks himself into the Northampton State Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

"I'm not drawn to art that deals with heroes," said Erdman. "I'm actually drawn to art with people who are tormented, conflicted, unsuccessful, failing and yet come to some kind of transformation where they can take action."

Sawyer, who's also producing the opera, admitted he needed a little convincing to see Arvin as a compelling central character.

"He was a victim, in that he was caught up in a witch hunt, was subject to invasion of privacy, which a few years afterwards would have been unconstitutional," Sawyer said. "But he also was a difficult character to consider completely admirable because he named names. He named the names of his friends."

In the end, though, Sawyer connected with the complexity of Arvin's motives.

"He had trouble liking himself, and that, I think, is sympathetic," Sawyer said. "I think it's something a lot of people can relate to."

Arvin was forced to retire from Smith after the scandal, while his colleagues were fired. He wrote one more literary biography before he died three years later, at 63.

"Even though this was a very painful period for Arvin, ultimately it helped him become a more integrated, honest person," said opera director Ron Bashford. "He didn't live that much longer after all this happened, but he did somehow manage to become — as he said — a person at peace with himself."

The opera will debut, fittingly, on the Smith College campus in September, along with a symposium about the Arvin case.

No matter how far the college has come since 1960, from gay rights to free speech, "I think we are the product of our histories," said Smith English professor Michael Thurston. "There's no getting away from the fact that, wherever we are, around any issue in 2017, we got there through the actions of past actors, whether they were individuals or institutions."

And putting that history on stage, he said, could help stop it from being repeated.

The story originally appeared on New England Public Radio.

This segment aired on July 11, 2017.


More from WBUR

Listen Live