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Oh, Susannah

Opera Idaho links McCarthy-era Susannah with the Boys of Boise scandal


Correction: Olin Blitch is played by Christopher Job, not Andrew Peck, as stated in the article. Peck plays Sam Polk in this production of Susannah.

Call it serendipity, call it an accident, but when Opera Idaho General Director Mark Junkert typed the keywords "1955," "Boise" and "McCarthyism" into Google, he stumbled on John Gerassi's 1966 book, The Boys of Boise. The expose chronicles a gay sex scandal that garnered Boise, then a town of about 50,000, national headlines in the mid-1950s.

The book's themes--mob mentality and fears of moral corruption--resonated with Junkert's plan to stage the 1955 Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah. The production focuses on a woman who becomes a pariah in her community after a traveling preacher piques the town's moral fervor, leading to Susannah's unfair degradation and the community's ultimate shame.

"I thought people ought to hear about this," Junkert said. "Susannah is an obvious example of an innocent person who has been wronged."

Gerassi, a journalist and professor of political science at Queens College in New York, died in August 2012. By then, his book had already inspired documentarian Seth Randal to research and film his 2006 documentary, The Fall of '55, which will be presented as a preface to Opera Idaho's production of Susannah at the Egyptian Theatre Thursday, May 16.

Susannah is part of Opera Idaho's Made in America series, which highlights an American-written opera each season. But the impetus to pair it with a documentary that already made its Boise premiere in 2006 came from Junkert's conviction that art has a grander purpose than entertainment--it should inspire and provoke contemplation.

"Where do you fit in the opera? Could this happen in my life? It's not our role to be political, but it is our role to stimulate people's thoughts," he said.

Randal also sees a direct correlation between The Fall of '55 and Susannah.

"[The Fall of '55] is a story of how well-intentioned moral indignation got out of control, and that seems to be what Susannah's about, as well," Randal said.

In 1955, Boise juvenile probation officer Emery Bess uncovered instances of gay prostitution involving minors. When prosecutors declined to investigate them as connected events--an organized sex ring--Bess turned to the Idaho Allied Civic Force, a quasi-religious temperance society-turned-vigilance-committee, which financed a series of private investigators.

The idea was to protect the community's children, but the investigation soon expanded into a witch hunt for consenting gay adults. When these allegations were leaked to the national press, Boise became the punchline of homophobic jokes across the country.

At the time, said Randal, the public didn't distinguish between homosexuality and pedophilia. Of the 16 arrests that were made in connection with the alleged sex ring, fewer than half involved sex acts with underage boys.

"It was very traumatic for this community; it was embarrassing," Randal said.

Social acceptance of homosexuality has increased dramatically in the nearly 60 years since the Boys of Boise scandal. Several states are considering or now recognize gay marriage and civil unions. In Idaho, the Add The Words campaign is lobbying the Idaho Legislature to give workplace protections to the LGBT community. According to Randal, Boise's anti-gay hysteria will seem almost unrelatable to modern audiences.

"People will look at the film and wonder what the big deal was," he said.

During the course of his research for The Fall of '55, Randal spoke with people who wanted to forget the Boys of Boise scandal ever occurred, and others who were eager to discuss their experiences. Randal finished the production with a deep sense of the emotional impact the scandal had on Boise.

"I approached it from a journalistic point of view, but it became a labor of love," he said.

Randal's documentary communicates that emotional impact and evokes the suffering and estrangement the scandal caused.

Susannah director Elise Sandell--Opera Idaho's first professional female opera director, fresh from a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Madison, Wisc.--is working to re-create a similar setting of mass fear and alienation for the opera.

"What we're really trying to do is focus on a couple of leaders taking their power and hurting someone with it. It becomes about behavior control and mind control," she said.

Opera Idaho's production of Susannah stresses the impact of the village elders, a group of influential community members who turn public opinion against Susannah (played by Jacqueline Noparstak), indirectly leading to the traveling preacher, Olin Blitch (Andrew Peck), taking advantage of Susannah sexually.

"I don't want to define exactly what happens between Susannah and Blitch. I want to leave it to the audience's imagination," Sandell said.

Sandell is condensing Susannah's set for the Egyptian Theatre stage, striving for period clothing and props, and honoring the rapid pace of the libretto to realize Carlisle Floyd's vision for his characters and their mental states.

"I've been trying to stay true to the text because power and groupthink are all in there," she said.

How the village elders steer public opinion of Susannah is central to Sandell's vision for the opera--and the link between it and The Fall of '55. Both explore themes of scapegoating, shame and the coercive power of elites. In Sandell's words: "I really work to portray a society where this groupthink is perverted into an instrument of subjugation."