Opera - The Crucible, 1961 - Interview with Robert Ward

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  • On January 15, 2007, Hans Fischer spoke over the telephone with Robert Ward about his opera "The Crucible."
  • Hans Fischer    Mr. Ward, the New York City Opera commissioned you to turn Arthur Miller's play into an opera. What attracted you to do this project?
    Robert Ward    The play itself was the greatest attraction. It has every element that a composer looks for in a libretto for an opera. It has a very powerful message. It has strong characters. It has a very wonderful confrontation between the characters, and it is just a very moving ply.
    HF    Did you meet Arthur Miller?
    RW    Yes, we worked with him preparing the libretto.
    HF    What was his reaction to seeing his play being turned into an opera?
    RW    He told us that when he looked first into the Salem witchcraft trial as a subject, he thought it might make a better opera than a play. He even had begun to hear some music for the beginning of it.
    HF    What were your criteria to shorten the play?
    RW    In the first place, an opera which takes about the same time like the play has to have about one third as many words in the libretto. That is the difference between the time it takes to sing and do what one can do with operas and what one can do with plays.
    So you have to rather ruthlessly cut it. Indeed in one of the first meetings I had with Arthur Miller I wanted to make sure that he understood what it would mean for us to turn the play into a libretto. I explained these things to him: One that it would take some very serious cutting and that we wanted to preserve the basic dramatic structure by all means. A play is a series of rather short speeches. In an opera you have to provide for arias or duets or choruses. And that means that those texts become longer and become what in the play would be kind of a monologue. That was very important for us for turning the play into a libretto.
    When I explained these things to Arthur Miller I thought he might change his mind about being interested in seeing his play as an opera. But instead he accepted. He said, "I understand this completely," and then went into a little monologue in which he explained the different media we all meant: the play, the poem, the story, the opera, the ballet. Each of these had its way of reaching the most profound emotional climaxes and that they varied in each media. And so we had a very complete understanding of this. We never had any problem about anything.
    HF    Which is the central theme in your opera?
    RW    It is the theme of all witchcraft things and the belief that people had in witches. And how this was utilized by powerful people in the community to do what was really evil. This is certainly the question in The Crucible. There is also the love triangle between Elizabeth, Abigail and John Proctor, which was an important theme. It is not the major emotional commitment that John Proctor has, but that his wife just can not accept the idea of being unfaithful and so there is this inner change of all these various themes and elements and passions, which then put a strong confrontation In the opera and in the play, of course.
    HF    How did you change characters to fit the opera?
    RW    One of the things we did as part of cutting down the story was to reduce the number of characters. E.g. in the play there are three judges, not just Judge Danforth. Essentially they all mean the same thing in the dramatic scheme of the play. So we cut two of them and put the substance on what those two said into Danforth. That rose him up as a much stronger and important character.
    There are furthermore three characters with policemen functions, which we all combined into Cheever.
    There are six young girls who plot the work with Abigail. Instead of giving them individual lines we turned them into a small chorus, a double trio as a matter of fact. They function all as one person, which is the way they do in the play when the slavishly follow Abigail.
    That was also an important part of reducing the number of words in the play to what one can use in an opera.
    HF    How do you show musically the changes some of the characters undergo?
    RW    Actually the Miller play is so rich in its text in terms of the words, that we used what he had written as often as we could. Indeed you can go through the play and the libretto and just move in the libretto to those places where we picked up the most important lines.
    There was one thing we changed. Miller had actually read the transcripts of the original trials in Salem. It was kind of an Elizabethan English that those people used at that point. Some of them used expressions which we thought would be very difficult for people to understand if they were sung. So we simplified the language in some cases. But essentially we stuck to the real substance of Miller's words.
    HF    How do you show the mass hysteria?
    RW    We certainly did turn the people into a chorus in the big scene in the third act. But at this point one employs in the music all the same elements one would apply in writing a symphony in terms of the new point one has in writing so much more intense dramatic moments or calmer moments. You certainly have to write the kind of music which expresses those emotions. That is the opera composer's responsibility
    HF    Mr. Ward, thank you very much.
    RW    You are so welcome.