March 12, 2012

Peabody Opera Theatre presents Robert Ward’s ‘The Crucible’

Adaptation of Miller’s McCarthy-era play won Pulitzer Prize for music

A politically charged period in American history—the Salem witch trials of the 1690s—is set to music in The Crucible, Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize–winning opera, to be presented this week by the Peabody Opera Theatre. The stage director and designer is Roger Brunyate, director of Opera Programs at the Peabody Conservatory. Faculty member JoAnn Kulesza will conduct the Peabody Concert Orchestra.

Like the 1952 Arthur Miller play on which it is based, the opera is an allegory for another politically charged period: the so-called Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, when fear of communism was fanned by public accusations of disloyalty by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, among others. Commissioned by the New York City Opera, The Crucible premiered in 1961, several years after McCarthy’s rise and fall.

“The audience will get everything they get in Miller’s play, and they will get the additional power of the music to intensify the drama,” said Brunyate, who directed professional productions of the opera in Chicago and Kansas City in the 1980s. “Robert Ward doesn’t put two singers on the stage without getting them into a quarrel or an emotional clash.”

Particularly compelling are scenes between John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, and between Proctor and Abigail Williams, the teenage girl who accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft (and whose affair with Proctor complicates his ability to clear Elizabeth and himself). Proctor and others are taken to be hanged at the opera’s conclusion.

Ward, who retired from Duke University in 1987 and is now 94, will not attend the performance but was able to coach the performers last month by video conference. His lushly orchestrated music, requiring strong singers, is in neo-romantic style with modernist touches. The Act 1 ensemble number, “Jesus my consolation,” for example, recalls a traditional hymn even as it is sung at a brisk tempo in 7/8 time.

Though the drama takes place in the 17th century in a small and—literally—puritanical community, and the McCarthy era has faded from public consciousness, Brunyate believes that the opera retains its power. “Its themes are religion, sexuality, one’s place in the world, responsibility, political integrity, the discovery of one’s ability to manipulate others,” he said. He also draws a parallel with our own era, citing the Patriot Act and the “culture of plea bargains.”

While Brunyate will continue to teach and direct at Peabody, The Crucible will be his last main stage production as director of Opera Programs at the Conservatory, where he has taught since 1980.

Performances of The Crucible will take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, March 14 to 17, in Peabody’s Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall. Tickets are $25, $15 for seniors and $10 for students with ID. For tickets, call the Peabody box office at 410-234-4800.