‘C'mon. Name names." So asks one young man to another, both sitting on a park bench in Washington's Dupont Circle. One of them has just attended the wedding of a high-profile senator, and his newfound friend, like any good Washington social climber, pries him for the guest list.

It's the sort of conversation that could transpire between any two people in our nation's capital, at any point in time. But the year is 1953, and the senator in question is no ordinary solon but Joseph McCarthy, then at the height of his anti-Communist purge. In this context, asking someone to "name names" is rife with innuendo.

And not just of the politically inquisitorial variety. Such double entendres will inevitably pepper the conversations of our two characters because they're gay men. To be a homosexual in 1950s America required vigilant discretion and a preternatural capacity for deception. Perhaps nowhere was the talent for dissimulation more necessary than in Washington, where a "Lavender scare" surrounding gays in the federal bureaucracy racked up substantially more victims than the notorious (and far better recorded) Red one.

Cold War Washington is the setting for Fellow Travelers, a riveting new opera that premiered in June at Cincinnati's Aronoff Center for the Arts. It is based upon the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, whose distinct forte is the great American political-historical novel, one that seamlessly interweaves real people and occurrences with characters and plot developments entirely of his own fertile imagination. (His latest novel, Finale, a saga of the Reagan years, renders major events like the 1986 Reykjavik summit and the Iran-contra scandal through the experiences of a motley set of personalities including Richard Nixon, Christopher Hitchens, Merv Griffin, and a fictional National Security Council staffer whose entwinement with them all drives the plot.)

Fellow Travelers excavates a largely forgotten era of the American past by way of a romance between two young men. Timothy "Timmy" Laughlin is a fresh-out-of-Fordham English major and would-be priest working as a cub reporter for the old Evening Star, the sort of eager-beaver type who has been descending upon the city every summer for decades. Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller is the older, more experienced, and manipulative State Department official who seduces him. From their chance encounter on a Dupont Circle bench develops a passionate and necessarily furtive relationship that is, given the time and place, doomed to fail.

Those unfamiliar with opera, assuming it to be an art form exclusively suited to telling the stories of Renaissance princesses played by busty divas belting out Italian arias, may be apprehensive about a show like Fellow Travelers, whose characters engage in witty repartee about prosaic matters such as the spelling of Roy Cohn's surname. Even the prospect of an English-language opera may seem heretical, so associated is the genre with the classical European tradition. But Fellow Travelers is hardly the first opera to tackle modern political issues in a vernacular Americans can understand; composers have previously dramatized subjects diverse as Richard Nixon's presidential visit to China and the 1985 Achille Lauro terrorist hijacking. With its tragic circumstances, malicious villains, tortured lovers, and ill-fated romance, Fellow Travelers lends itself naturally to operatic adaptation, though that should not minimize the achievement of composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce in masterfully executing Mallon's novel for the stage.

From the moment of his first kiss, Timmy is as naïve about love as he is head-over-heels in it, his anticommunism as uncomplicated as his infatuation with Hawk. "I believe the fast growing tentacles of Communist ideology are the most significant threat to our great democracy," he declares in a job interview with a right-wing senator. "McCarthy's doing the most important work a man can do: rooting out Reds who chew up our values from the inside out," he says defensively, when Hawk criticizes the senator. Hawk, meanwhile, does not share a desire for the monogamy Timmy craves and fears the consequences that any relationship beyond the carnal could elicit.

What crucially distinguishes Timmy and Hawk's relationship from any other affair between a young innocent and an older cynic is the external danger which surrounds them. This was a time when prominent leaders were gripped by a paranoia that viewed Communist sympathies and "perversion" as two sides of the same subversive coin. Despite these obsessions—or, perhaps, because of them—architects of the Red and Lavender scares betrayed similarly rudimentary understandings of their quarry. For instance, when Hawk is interrogated by a special unit established to root out homosexuals in the State Department, he's asked to repeat the word "district" (presumably to catch a lisp) and walk across the room (to discern if his hips move in swishy fashion). He passes with flying colors. Throughout the performance, the audience comes to appreciate the suffocating, pervasive sense of being watched that gay men and women of the time must have felt. During scene changes, the other actors surround Timmy and Hawk, glaring silently as props and walls and furniture move around them.

The story's fateful conclusion is foreshadowed early, when one of Hawk's sympathetic officemates whispers to him that a colleague has been fired for being found in "the wrong bar." That line has a tragic resonance in the wake of this summer's Pulse nightclub shooting, to whose victims Fellow Travelers has since been dedicated. They, too, found themselves, by dint of their identity, or the identity of a friend or relative, in the wrong bar—and paid the ultimate price. Like Romeo and Juliet's, Hawk and Timmy's romance is condemned by circumstance: Where a pair of warring families made the coupling of Shakespeare's young lovers impossible, societal homophobia here spurs a heartbreaking act of betrayal. Fellow Travelers portrays how prejudice not only inflicts horrible consequences upon people, but makes us do horrible things to one another.

James Kirchick, a correspondent for the Daily Beast, is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C.