The Peabody Opera Theatre
music by Robert Ward
text by Bernard Stambler
after the play by Arthur Miller
JoAnn Kulesza, conductor
conducting the Peabody Concert Orchestra
Roger Brunyate, stage director and designer
Douglas Nelson, lighting designer
Wednesday–Saturday, March 14–17, 2012, at 7:30 PM
Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall
Peabody Conservatory of Music
1 East Mt. Vernon Place
Admission $25 / Seniors $15 / Students with ID $10
Box Office: 410/234-4800, or
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 as a dramatization of the Salem witch trials of 1692–93, a mass hysteria that gripped several communities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But he had another purpose: to present an accusing parallel to the political witch hunt taking place at his own time, nominally in the fight against Communism. Under the chairmanship of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee had the power to indict anybody as Communist sympathizers. As at Salem, the only way to escape was to name other names; in this poisoned house of cards, people were encouraged to betray their friends, often with false accusations. The McCarthy committee made a special target of Hollywood writers and directors, because of their power to influence others. Miller had so far escaped, but his play thrust him into the spotlight. In 1956, he too was convicted of Contempt of Congress for his refusal to name names, following the footsteps (though not the fate) of the defiant Giles Corey in his own play.
Joseph McCarthy by Herblock
The Crucible was ripe for opera. Miller apparently considered learning music in order to turn the play into an opera himself, but was persuaded to stick to his own medium. So when a young composer named Robert Ward came to him with one successful opera already under his belt (He Who Gets Slapped, 1956), Miller was open to his proposal. Ward and his librettist Bernard Stambler worked directly with Miller in making the adaptation, keeping all the essential action and much of Miller’s language, but inevitably altering the tone in the translation from one medium into the other. Miller’s play is strongly polemical; even on the page, it is full of historical notes and personality sketches, and the author was careful to select a wide variety of characters presenting different points of view. But opera is essentially emotional; Stambler reduced the cast to a more manageable number, and Ward wrote music of searing intensity that expresses the conflict essentially in terms of the human lives compromised or crushed by it, with some ultimately rising triumphantly above it. The opera was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1961, featuring some of the leading American singers of the time (Chester Ludgin, Norman Treigle, Frances Bible, and Patricia Brooks among them). It was an immediate success, and won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1962.
Witchcraft was already on the mind of the Puritan leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, determined to maintain the authority of their Calvinist religion against forces that would weaken it. But it is now generally thought that the Salem witch-hunt was an epidemic of mass hysteria. It started, apparently, among a group of young girls in the house of the Salem pastor, Samuel Parris. Parris was a bitter, ineffectual man who returned to the pulpit after his failure as a sugar grower in the West Indies. He brought with him a native servant named Tituba who, homesick for the customs of her own country, probably involved the girls in some of the trappings of voodoo as a kind of game. Two of them, Parris’ daughter Betty and his orphan niece Abigail Williams, began to have fits similar to epilepsy, which soon spread to the other girls also, no doubt pleased to find themselves for once the center of public attention. But what turned this into a crisis was probably a combination of avarice and fear. Miller exemplifies both attitudes in his treatment of Thomas and Ann Putnam: he as a rapacious landowner eager to seize the property of anybody accused and convicted; she seeking an explanation for the deaths of so many of her children. Motives such as theirs, combined with Parris’ insecurities, created a powder keg ready to explode, and that explosion would result in the hanging of nineteen people and the imprisonment of many more.
Tracts on the trials by Cotton Mather and John Hale
Where Miller and Ward are most closely aligned is in the treatment of the human drama. Miller takes a real character, a tavern-keeper named John Putnam, and converts him into a simple farmer standing up for common sense in the midst of such hysteria. But he gives him a fatal flaw also, putting Abigail Williams into her later teens, making her originally the Proctors’ servant, and giving her a sexual relationship with John before the action begins. This compromises both his relationship with his wife Elizabeth (whom Miller portrays as upright but cold), and his ability to denounce Abigail when he sees her leading the girls to destroy so many others. Miller sticks closer to fact in his treatment of the Reverend John Hale, a zealous witch-hunter who is brought in to investigate the epidemic, but becomes gradually convinced of the shakiness of the evidence against the accused.
For the evidence is extraordinary indeed. The courtroom scene in Act III is like no trial we would recognize today. The only defense against accusations of witchcraft is confession and the naming of others suspected of being involved. Giles Corey refuses to name names, and is pressed to death to make him confess. John Putnam brings his new servant, Mary Warren, to testify against Abigail, only to see the court proceedings turned to shambles when the girls claim to see the Devil swooping down in the form of a yellow bird. This is a trial where the most bizarre behavior is seen, not as a failing on the part of those exhibiting it, but as incontrovertible proof against whomever happens to be in the dock at the time. Guilty of lechery but innocent of witchcraft, John Proctor will spend the final act debating whether to clear himself by confessing to that also. His moral struggles will bring him closer to his wife Elizabeth, and at last reveal the goodness that was in him all along.
Roger Brunyate and Robert Ward
Finally, a personal note. I first met Bob Ward when we were both on the faculty of the Brevard Music Center in 1981, and I had the privilege of workshopping scenes from the opera he was then writing, Abelard and Heloise. A couple of years later, I think at Bob’s suggestion, I mounted stagings of The Crucible in Chicago and Kansas City, my first large-scale professional productions in this country. Our friendship led to a collaboration on a one-act opera, Roman Fever, for which I wrote the libretto after the story by Edith Wharton. It was the start, for me, of a separate career as a librettist, and has become the second most often performed of Bob’s operas after The Crucible. So our production of this opera marks a special return for me to the influence of a great mentor. I can think of no more fitting way to end my thirty-one-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Peabody Opera Theatre.
Singers listed first appear in the Wednesday and Friday performances.|
Passing the cursor over singers’ names will show any previous roles.
|Rev. Samuel Parris||
|Rev. John Hale||