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Crucible composer remembers ‘witch hunts’

by Lenise Willis

Poodle skirts, slick hair, and the birth of rock and roll aren’t theonly things for which ’50s culture is known. The decadeis also marked by one of the most successful allegories intheatre — Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

In 1952, Miller wrote the play, which dramatized the 17th CenturySalem witch trials, in response to McCarthyism, when the US governmentwent on its own witch hunt — for communists. A raving success,the play was later adapted into an opera by composer Robert Ward in1961.

To this day both the play and the opera remain highly recognizedand revered.Presenting one of the most successful adaptations of theatre, PiedmontOpera brings home Robert Ward’s The Crucible in collaboration with theAJ Fletcher Opera Institute of the UNC School of the Arts. Ward was theChancellor of the School of the Arts from 1967-1975.But this story does not begin with Piedmont Opera’s production. Thisstory begins long ago, when Ward, now 94, fi rst saw Miller’s play backin 1952.

Ward saw the second-ever performance of the play in New York andsaid he was “bowled over by the power of the play and its characters.“I immediately thought about ‘How do I get to Miller directly?’” Wardsaid. “Not only, at that time, was he already a pretty famous playwright,but that’s also when he was involved with Marilyn Monroe and that wasgetting a lot of publicity.” Ward had to fi rst get Miller’s permission tocompose the opera before he could go through with it.

Fortunately, Ward’s brother was good friends with Miller’s producerin New York, so Ward took advantage of the connection. At the time, theNew York City Opera was still performing Ward’s fi rst opera He WhoGets Slapped (1956).

The producer told Ward to hold three tickets to thelast performance of his opera for himself, Miller and Marilyn Monroe.“When word got around that Miller and Marilyn Monroe were goingto be there, I think we sold some extra tickets that night,” Ward laughed.“But he came and my brother’s friend, the producer, came, but Marilynnever got there.”Ward said they met after the performance and Miller was very interestedin creating an opera for The Crucible.

“I learned later that Millerthought at fi rst that [The Crucible] would make a better opera than a play.He even began to hear music from the fi rst scene,” Ward said.After gaining Miller’s permission and a commission from the NewYork City Opera, Ward teamed with librettist Bernard Stambler, whobegan the process by cutting down the text and length of the play.“These days, people would rather not have an opera four hours long,”Ward said.

“I think the movies have something to do with this. They’veconditioned people to a two-hour work.”Ward adds that a libretto is only about a third as many syllables as aplay because it needs room for the melodies.Ward said they were under so much pressure to fi nish the opera intime that the cast had to learn it scene by scene as it was written. Wardfi nished the last pages of score only 11 days before the curtain went up.

“I was so busy writing it that I didn’t get to really view it, but thenwhen I fi rst heard it in the singers’ voices and saw the staging of it and soforth, I had a feeling that it was going to be a great success.”“At the end of the opera there was a very quiet pause for just a moment— long enough that the audience heard a woman break out in agreat sob,” Ward said about the fi rst performance. “And then the audiencereacted and they all got on their feet.”

Ward said he felt silly standing for his own opera, so he remainedseated with his wife.“During the applause, an older woman who was sitting next to melooked down at me and she said, ‘Young man, don’t you realize whatyou’ve just heard?’ I smiled and introduced myself.”

It was The Crucible that earned Ward the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music,and from then on his name was high in the world of opera.To learn more about the play or opera, or to meet Ward himself, seePiedmont Opera’s list of community events in Playbill.

wanna go?

Piedmont Opera performs Robert Ward’s The Crucible March 16, 18 and 20 at the Stevens Center, 405 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem. Tickets are $15-$80. For tickets or more information call 336.725.7101 ext. 100 or visit www.piedmontopera.org.

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