There’s an important aspect of Peter Rothstein’s identity he doesn’t see on opera stages very often.

“I asked maestro the other day, ‘Have you ever conducted gay characters?’” Rothstein said. “He said, ‘Oh, sure.’

“And I said, ‘Which ones?’”

“Fellow Travelers,” produced by Madison Opera in Capitol Theater on Feb. 7 and Feb. 9, revolves around two gay men in Joseph McCarthy’s Washington, D.C. of the 1950s. Based on Thomas Mallon’s novel, Gregory Spears’ and Greg Pierce’s opera plumbs the individual impact of the Lavender Scare, a moral panic about homosexuality that rippled throughout the government.

Hawk and Tim in “Fellow Travelers” are not the only LGBTQ characters to appear in opera. When Rothstein asked, Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain referenced Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place,” which features bisexual characters. Rothstein is intrigued by Terence Blanchard’s jazz opera “Champion,” about the real-life boxer Emile Griffith.

But it’s still rare enough to see a gay love story sung in this way that Rothstein, a Minneapolis-based theater artist who earned an MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds the story especially moving. That has proved true even when the singers playing Hawk and Tim aren’t gay themselves, which happened the second time he directed the opera.  

Rothstein recently worked with PBS to film his musical work “All is Calm,” a separate production of which Four Seasons Theatre put up last month. Back in Minneapolis, he’s the co-founder and artistic director of Theatre Latté Da, which on March 11 will open a run of 56 (!) performances of “La Bohème.”

Rothstein stopped by the Cap Times before rehearsal to talk about this latest production of “Fellow Travelers” and the complications of “acting gay” onstage.

There are parallels between the world of “Fellow Travelers” and our current political moment. How do you root the opera in its own time while keeping it relevant?

It is my job to have it resonate now. In finding the authenticity of the given moment or a given character in history, it’s important that the singer understand and not judge the character by contemporary standards.

I saw a documentary recently about Stonewall. An older gay man said, people talk about the closet, judging people for being in the closet. There was no closet. The world put you in the closet every single moment. So you could decide whether you wanted to come out every two minutes, but the closet was constantly built for you and around you.

We spend a lot of time in queer culture belittling each other for not coming out of the closet, outing other people. … But the closet reconstructs itself 200 times over the course of an evening. Society’s building the closet. Gay people did not build the closet.

The characters in this opera negotiate gay stereotypes. How do you handle that onstage?

Hawk, one of our primary characters, is not stereotypical. He’s able to pass and move through a hetero world, which makes him feel like he is invincible, above or immune to it. Tim would be less successful at passing.

I approach it as the authenticity of the character. There’s a huge part of our stereotype that we self-embrace, we find humor and camaraderie. For a culture that had the option to pass, unlike most people of color, there came a lot of masquerading of "How do I sit? How do I stand? How do I talk lower? How do I pass in a world that’s labeled me less than, that’s labeled me queer?"

There’s been a celebration in queer history of embracing that which you grew up trying to hide.

Was that true for you?

When I went to junior high, my older brother said, “Don’t carry your books like that.” He was trying to take care of me. But then I learned, “Oh, when I carry books like that I’m like a girl.”

It’s tricky. You don’t want to represent caricature or stereotype. At the same time, it is part of our history to reject those hetero norms and embrace an authentic self which may appear to audiences to be stereotype.

Why is this kind of representation so important, do you think?

I remember right after I got out of school, I was in a production of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” I wrote (playwright) Terence McNally a fan letter for helping me come out of the closet, because all of a sudden … everything I despised about myself I was celebrated for. The queenier I was, the funnier I was, the more the audience loved me, cried for me. It made me a star inside that little universe

In the theater world, we’ve been telling gay narratives for decades. Not in the opera world. In the first production, we had two out gay men in the main role who had never embodied a gay character before. So that was really moving to help them build that, to see what it meant to them.

Are you seeing progress, then, in how opera and other media depict homosexuality?

In Boston, I told the cast — we’re having so many conversations in our business right now about who can play what roles, can straight people play gay characters. First and foremost, marginalized voices that have been denied a place on our stage and screen absolutely need to be a top priority.

But I also think, for me, there’s something powerful about watching two straight men wanting so desperately to represent me honestly and with integrity … to not wear a hat, the “I’m a straight actor playing a gay character,” which we saw in Hollywood for decades.  

How is that different onstage than it is onscreen?

When Tom Hanks plays a gay character, we know he’s straight and can applaud him for playing gay. There’s safety in the world knowing they’re a straight actor. There’s something beautiful for me … the reason that the craft of acting is the most powerful art form for creating social change is we’re watching the act of empathy.

We’re watching a human being try to fully understand, embody and empathize with another human being.

Sign up for Cap Times newsletters: