UT Opera’s 'The Crucible' Reveals the Cost of McCarthy-era Paranoia

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As human beings, we like to believe that we learn from our past mistakes. But do we? We also like to tell ourselves that our obsessions and outrages are always honorably motivated. But are they? Those are two basic questions at the symbolic heart of The Crucible, both the play by Arthur Miller, and the opera based on Miller’s play by Robert Ward, which is being offered this weekend by the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre.

Miller’s play, which opened on Broadway in 1953, relates the terror and frantic obsessions of the Salem, Mass., witch hunts and trials of the 1690s. Miller’s intention, though, was to draw an allegory to the McCarthy Red Scare of the 1950s, which was specifically affecting him and his colleagues. Despite winning a Tony Award, the production of his play no doubt made him a visible target for further investigation. In 1956, Miller was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt of Congress for failing to name names. In Miller’s play, just as in his own life experience, the witch hunts were masking more basic human motives: fear, jealousy, greed, power, and sexual misconduct.

Ward’s opera, with a libretto by Bernard Stambler, was commissioned and premiered by New York City Opera in 1961. The opening night was a huge critical and audience success, and public praise grew over the subsequent performances. In that theatre season, it earned the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for music and a New York Critics Circle Citation.

Because of the issues of setting vocal music to a stylized drama, Stambler’s libretto cuts some of Miller’s text, consolidates some of the characters, and adds a number of ensemble parts. But otherwise it’s completely faithful to the spirit of the play. In Ward’s score one might detect the influence of two American composers: Howard Hanson, with whom he studied at the Eastman School of Music, and Aaron Copland. Yet Ward’s style is distinctive—a contemporary lyricism combined with American folk idioms and moments of hymn-like solemnity.

“On top of having these eloquent ideas and words from the play, The Crucible has a beautiful score that functions like a film score behind a great piece of drama,” says UT Opera Theatre artistic director Carroll Freeman. “And its very inspiring to hear the music support the drama.”

Although any opera can live or die on the conductor’s baton, The Crucible seems particularly dependent on that person to not only infuse dramatic intensity into the work, but to keep it at a feverish pitch. Conducting the UT Opera Orchestra for this production will be Kevin Class, music director of UT Opera Theatre. Freeman is staging the production.

Freeman’s staging will benefit yet again this year from a seemingly providential acquisition of a stage set. “About the time I had decided to do The Crucible, I received a notice from Des Moines Metro Opera—they were selling their Crucible set,” Freeman says. “This, of course, is the same company from which we purchased that amazing set for Street Scene last year. So they sold me their stunning Crucible set that was designed by Steven McLean.”

Populating that set will be the usual large split cast of student singers spread over the three performances. The central figure of John Proctor, who becomes entangled with the hysteria and manipulation of the servant girl Abigail Williams, will be sung by Jesse Stock, a graduate student at UT and member of the Knoxville Opera Studio, and Seth Maples, an undergraduate who sang the role of Don Giovanni last year in UT’s production of the Mozart opera. Abigail Williams, with whom Proctor once had an affair, will be sung by Rachel Ann Moore and Valerie Haber. Stefan Barner and Cody Boling will appear as the evil Judge Danforth. LaSaundra Brown, of WBIR-TV, will appear as Tituba in the Sunday performance with Danisha Ballew taking the Friday and Saturday performances. The role of Elizabeth Proctor will be sung by Corinne Stevens and Leah Serr.

Freeman has cast a number of undergraduates in leading roles for the production, including one as John Proctor. “It’s a little risky because the orchestration is a little thick,” Freeman says. “But these are amazing students.”

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