Crucible Composer Thrills Sarasota Opera Audience

By Megan McDonald March 15, 2011


Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Robert Ward.

Because the Sarasota Opera specializes in works from the 18th and 19th centuries, “Meet the Composer“ sessions are few and far between. Verdi and Puccini just aren’t that available.

So it was a big deal recently when a living composer – and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, no less  – strode into the Sarasota Opera House.  Robert Ward, who wrote the opera version of The Crucible in 1961, was greeted like a rock star by a standing, cheering audience of 400 that included many excited cast members from the Sarasota Opera production.

The 93-year-old Ward, smiling and seemingly quite touched by the reception, bowed slightly as he took a seat next to his host,  artistic director Victor DeRenzi.

DeRenzi’s first question, naturally, was what drew Ward to his source material, the powerful 1953 Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials.

That work has long been viewed as an allegory for the anti-Communist witch hunts that swept America in the 1950s. Describing himself as a political liberal, Ward said Miller was a hero of his, particularly for refusing to testify against  his colleagues when he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

“When The Crucible opened in New York,  I was wrung out by the power of the play,”  said Ward, whose first opera, He Who Gets Slapped was running in New York at the same time.  Through a contact, he invited Miller to see his opera. “They sold a lot of extra tickets that night when word got out, because people hoped Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe, would come with him,” Ward said, laughing. “But she didn’t.”

Miller and Ward went out for drinks afterward, and immediately hit it off.  “Miller was intrigued by the idea of turning it into an opera,” he said. “In fact, he explained when he was first reading about the witch trials, he thought the story might make a better opera than a play.”

Ward asked Miller if he would be interested in writing the libretto, but he declined. “He asked me if I had someone good in mind, and I told him I did,” Ward said, referring to Bernard Stambler, who had also written the libretto for He Who Gets Slapped.

Ward wanted to make sure Miller understood that  “An opera has only about 1/3 as many syllables as a play does, so there would have to be major cuts.”  But Miller wasn’t troubled by that. “We got along just fine throughout the process,” Ward said. “He was extremely pleased.”

On opening night at the New York City Opera in 1961, the audience was stunned into silence as the production ended.  “Some people were sobbing,” Ward said. “Then, everyone stood en masse and started cheering. Well, I thought it would be corny for me to stand, so I remained in my seat. But the woman next to me turned to me and said, ‘Young man, don’t  you realize what you’ve just heard?’ So I told her who I was.”

Ward suffered from writer’s block as he tried to complete the work, and finished it only 11 days before the opening.  He said gained insight by studying the works of Verdi,  who “knew the solution to any academic problem.”

“I didn’t put him up to that,” interjected DeRenzi, a passionate Verdi  fan.

Ward, who earned the Pulizter Prize for The Crucible in 1962,  was funny and charming throughout the one-hour discussion. When singer Sean Anderson, who plays John Proctor, rose to ask him a question, Ward warned him to “save your voice for  tonight.”

Asked by DeRenzi what compliment from an audience member about The Crucible ”would make him feel the best, he answered simply:  “Pretty good.”

Performances of The Crucible continue through March 19.

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