In 1950s America, more than 5,000 government employees lost their jobs because they were suspected of being gay.

This sickening purge was dubbed "The Lavender Scare," and it forms the backdrop of Gregory Spears' 2016 opera "Fellow Travelers." First performed at Cincinnati Opera, the work had its regional premiere at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis on Saturday evening.

Minnesota Opera's new staging played out within the context of Sara Brown's coolly efficient set designs. Half a dozen neoclassical columns suggested the imposing institutional trammelings of Washington, D.C., while a combination of desks, chairs and venetian blinds economically notated the shifting locations of the opera's 16 scenes.

"Fellow Travelers" tells the story of a secret love affair between two federal government workers — Hawkins Fuller, a State Department employee, and Timothy Laughlin, an intern in a senator's office. Timothy was ardently sung by tenor Andres Acosta, whose acting skillfully externalized the feelings of a credulous ingénu beguiled by the bright lights and bustling egos of the big city.

Hawk is a tougher, harder character, more difficult to make sympathetic. He is predatory from the outset, his manipulation of Timothy transparently self-seeking. New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams sang Hawk with sonorous conviction, but occasionally seemed flummoxed by the character's caddishness and cold calculation. Is Hawk's opportunistic behavior caused by the oppressive society in which he lives? Or is he simply a commitment avoider, who takes what he can get wherever he finds it?

It is a weakness of "Fellow Travelers" that these issues are not brought more sharply into focus, leaving considerable uncertainty over whether it was McCarthyism or Hawk's vulpine machinations that blighted Timothy's first same-sex relationship.

"Fellow Travelers" was also a frustrating experience musically. There were long passages of glimmering lyricism, almost sepia-tinted in their framing of this grim period in U.S. history. But Spears' deft conjuring of seductive, ear-tingling textures from the 17-piece orchestra was undermined by a reluctance to more sharply characterize moments of intense drama.

Hawk's interrogation, where he is plied with questions about his sexuality, was one of those moments. The pain and anguish seemed strangely diluted in Spears' music, the composer's soft-focus approach more pleasing to the ear than challenging to the intellect.

In supporting roles, vibrant mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala excelled as Mary Johnson, a friend of Hawk's who eventually sides with Timothy.

Trevor Bowen's time-capsule costume designs and Mary Shabatura's lighting contributed considerably to the evocative re-creation of the 1950s — and the shadowplay that was necessary for gays and lesbians to navigate the era's ugly persecutions.

Conductor Daniela Candillari and director Peter Rothstein pulled the creative strands together convincingly, making this Minnesota Opera production a laudable artistic achievement.

The opera itself left a more ambiguous impression. The Lavender Scare was an appalling stain on U.S. social history. "Fellow Travelers" acknowledged that, without strongly communicating the sense of moral outrage and raw emotional pain one might have expected.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at