Composer  Robert  Ward

The First of Two Conversations
with Bruce Duffie



This first conversation with Robert Ward took place in May of 1985, when he was in Chicago for a production of The Crucible by the Chicago Opera Theater, in which a new orchestration was being presented for the first time.  [The second conversation, which took place in 2000 and was published in The Opera Journal, can be seen here.]

This first meeting took place at the home of Alan Stone, the Founder and General Manager of the COT, and he provides a few details about this version during the interview.


Bruce Duffie:    The Crucible won the Pulitzer Prize and now is being done in a new orchestration which was written especially for the Chicago Opera Theater, so my first question is the obvious one
why tamper with success?

Robert Ward:    Over the years since The Crucible was first performed, a number of people have asked me if there was a reduced version of the orchestra, because they were operating in smaller theaters or they had a very small pit.  That idea actually has always appealed to me for the simple reason that because of the rather intense dramatic nature of the libretto, The Crucible in fact fares better, I feel, in a small theatre where those values can come through better than it does in some of the vast houses in which so much opera takes place in today.  So that when Alan Stone of the Chicago Opera Theater approached me on this, it came at a time when I was not under a terrible deadline to get some piece finished, and I felt the moment was kind of right.  One of the reasons that it was right was that I had heard such very good reports of the productions which were done here with his group that I decided this was the right moment for it.  So I undertook it for that reason.

BD:    Are you happy with the orchestration as it is now?

RW:    We have just come this afternoon from the first reading of the reduced orchestration, and at the intermission I said to Alan, “If I had just walked into this rehearsal without realizing there was such a thing at the reduced orchestration, I would hardly have known.”  Except for a few places where there are some colors, which because of some substitutions that had to be done, I would not have been aware.  But otherwise, I think that someone who knows it a little less well than I do would probably be very little aware of the difference.  It’s a little brighter and it’s a little clearer.  I have not used wind instruments in some places where I did before, and if anything that lightens it up a little bit, but I think in no way in a negative sense.

BD:    Have you tampered with anything but the orchestration
any of the melodic lines or harmonies?

RW:    No, otherwise it’s exactly the same.

BD:    This production is in three acts instead of the original four?

Alan Stone:    We combine Act One and Act Two and make one act with two scenes.  That way we do it with two intervals.

BD:    Why not telescope both ends so that there is just one interval in the middle?

AS:    There’s one scene that is really the climax of the piece, which is the courtroom scene at the end of the original Act Three.  We need to give the audience some respite.  Anything following that, if it followed immediately, would have to be anticlimactic.  The prison scene is very powerful, too, but that scene really needs an intermission, so that’s why we decided on two intermissions and three acts.

RW:    In fact both the First and Second Acts are really expository acts.  The first one is expository in the social climate of Salem.  That’s what you know about when that act is over, but you really don’t know about the most important individual relationship, which is that between John and Elizabeth Proctor, and what’s going to happen there until the end of the Second Act.  Early on, our experience
Bernard Stambler’s and minewas that it really was better to combine the first two acts.  They don’t make an unusually long First Act.  It should run about fifty minutes, so we recommend that it be done that way.

BD:    How did winning the Pulitzer Prize affect the progress and the performances of this opera?

RW:    It’s a little hard to say.  There is no question that the Pulitzer Prize is the greatest piece of promotion that any piece can have.  On the other hand, the idea that if you get the Pulitzer Prize for a work automatically is going to result in many, many performances simply isn’t true.  You can name Pulitzer Prize winning pieces which have immediately had a lot of performances, but I happen to have been sitting on the jury for one we thought was a great piece, but it was twenty years after it won the Pulitzer Prize before it every got another performance.  So it’s not a guarantee that every orchestra in the country
or every opera companyis going to pick the piece up by any means, but there is no doubt that it helps.  And it helps one’s whole career because being a newspaper prize, the minute you arrive in a town the newspapers say this guy must be OK; the newspapers said he was all right.

BD:    You’ve written quite a number of other operas.  Do you like being known as an opera composer, or would you prefer it was just as a music composer?

RW:    My output has been pretty much balanced between the various media.  I have written six operas, five symphonies, a number of large choral works and some chamber music, so I have operated through a generality of the media rather than being almost completely an opera composer as, say, Wagner and Verdi and Puccini were.

BD:    Why does it seem so difficult for American operas to get hearings, especially in the big houses today?

RW:    The big houses are so tied into the star system, and the way that works is if you’re going to engage one of the singers that are really the top stars, they are scheduled for three to four years ahead.  So if you were to approach them with the idea of doing a contemporary opera, it’s very difficult for them to fit this into their schedule.  It isn’t simply because they don’t want to do it; many of them would be very interested, but those companies are also very conservative.  So I think it is the combination of those two things.

BD:    Are the companies making the public conservative or is the public making the company conservative?

RW:    I am rather convinced that if the Metropolitan suddenly decided to do one of those operas by American composers which has had great success
and there are about ten of them that I could mention which have been played widely and received very favorablyif they simply took one of those and did it every year and did it on television in their broadcasts, this would have a tremendous effect for the whole field of American opera.  They could also command the Leontyne Prices and other star singers to do it.

BD:    Would The Crucible work well with Leontyne Price and Sherrill Milnes in the cast?  

RW:    I don’t know what Leontyne would do in it since she’s not doing any opera any more...  Actually Leontyne was a student of mine at The Julliard School, so I have known her from way back then, but when I occasionally see Sherrill Milnes, the greeting that he always sings me is a line from The Crucible because he knows it.  I think it would not take a great deal to interest him in doing the John Proctor role which he’s absolutely ideally suited for.  He’d be a marvelous.

BD:    I look forward to this new production very much.

RW:    I hope you enjoy it.  I was wonderfully impressed with the rehearsal today, especially with the orchestra because it’s a first-rate young group.

BD:    If a German company or French company or Portuguese company came to you and wanted to do The Crucible in translation, would that be a good idea from your point of view? 

RW:    Yes.  As a matter of fact, I’ve conducted it in Germany in German.  Two years ago it was done in Japan in Japanese, and I’m going to conduct it this summer in Korea in Korean.  I am very much in favor of this.  We’re at a curious moment in all of this because some of the companies are now going back and doing them in the foreign language and depending on the projection of titles.

BD:    Is that good idea from your standpoint?

RW:    My main feeling is that the audience should understand the words of what they’re seeing and hearing.  How this is achieved doesn’t matter that much to me.  I think to do everything in English has certain merits, but I think we all know that just because it’s sung in English doesn’t mean you hear and understand every word.  The important thing is that the audience understands what they’re listening to.

BD:    Would you object if the performance was being done in English with Supertitles?

RW:    I’ve thought about this and I don’t know.  I’d have to experience it to know whether this would be desirable or not.  I have no idea.

BD:    Have you seen productions with Supertitles?

RW:    No, not of this opera.

BD:    What about other operas?

RW:    Oh, yes I’ve seen many.

BD:    Do they do the job of bridging the gap between the libretto and the audience?

RW:    Yes they certainly do if they are good.  Some of them are very ridiculous; they’re laughable because they are so condensed.  If you have a long love scene and all you get on the Supertitles is, “You’re a great gal,” or “Yeah, I go for you,” that doesn’t really help the opera.  But if it was well done I think it could be very effective.

BD:    Of course when the text is repeated a lot and the same phrase of text comes back, such as “T’amo, t’amo…”  [Both laugh]

RW:    That’s right.  On the other hand, it could well be that a contemporary opera would be very difficult to do that way because you don’t have those textual repetitions in contemporary opera.

BD:    Is there too much text in contemporary opera?

RW:    There may be too much for the first time you listen, but maybe it will be fine by the fifth time.  The nature of opera is such that its values are not discovered once around.  I’m sure that you could think of many, many people who have heard Bohème or Magic Flute 50 fifty times.  After the first couple times, they know the story and they know what the text is all about, but that’s not what you go to opera for.  I think we have to develop a sense in our audiences of recognition that opera is not just to go hear a text.  There’d be no point I writing an opera if that was all it was about.

BD:    Which is more important, the music or the text?

RW:    Maybe I can best illuminate this one by one of the earliest conversations I had with Arthur Miller when I became interested in The Crucible.   It turned out that when he was working on the play and first came to consider it, he thought that it might make a better opera than a play.  But in any case, during the course of our first discussion, there was a bridge I thought had better be crossed first rather than last because it could mean the end of the whole thing.  We had gotten along very well, so finally I said, “Look, there’s one thing that I need to say right now.  I think your play is a masterpiece, and you’ve even kind of orchestrated it with this marvelous use of this Elizabethan language,” which he had gotten from the trial records and so forth.  I continued, “It doesn’t need a little bit of incidental music to go along and I have no intention of writing some incidental music for a great play.  If this is going to be an opera, the music is going to have to be the first value.
  I was prepared for him to clear his throat and say, “Well, it was nice that we got together,” but quite the contrary!  He said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”  He was doing a film of The Misfits at that time, and he launched into a monologue which was one of the most perceptive visions of the various values in opera, ballet, the movies, and where the greatest intensity of value could be.  So when I told him that we would have to reduce in sheer number the words in his play to about one third of what was there, that didn’t shock him at all.  He was marvelous from beginning to end about that, and this was very different.  I had known of composers’ experience with some writers who, the minute you wanted to touch a word they had written, “Sorry, you can’t do that,” and that was the end of that project because you just can’t work like that in the theater.  So Miller was perfectly marvelous.

BD:    Have you had to work with people who would not let you change a word?

RW:    Some of the writers were dead
— such as Ibsen and Andreev — so that was not a problem.  The operas I’ve done which had original libretti I was involved from the beginning of the planning right through the whole writing.  I have had a very good time with those living authors.

BD:    If a young composer asks you for advice about writing an opera, should they look first for a story or a text or a librettist?

RW:    Absolutely it has to come from the libretto.  It has to be something that they can really get excited about, that they can empathize with, and that is suitable for them and the kind of music that they write.  Young composers very often don’t know that; they have very funny kinds of ideas.  Suddenly they have come up with a rather cynical, hard-boiled kind of character, yet what they want to do is some vastly romantic work like Cyrano de Bergerac, and it’s totally unsuited for them.  They don’t realize this right off, so the first thing I deal with when young composers work with me is to get a libretto which is right.  I make them actually go through the exercise of writing a libretto, so that they really appreciate what a good librettist is.

BD:    So they see their own failings in it?

RW:    That’s right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do the older operas still speak to us on the stage today
even going back as far as Handel and Monteverdi?

RW:    One can’t generalize about all of them because some do much better than others.  I have no trouble with anything from Mozart on, even some Monteverdi doesn’t bother me that way.  But with the libretti of the Handelian operas, I find great problems because the music is so incredible and so marvelous and yet it was tied to certain traditions
all the da capos, the long introductions and the repetitionsthat you don’t have any kind of dramatic impact.  As a matter of fact if I could find the time, I’ve long felt that I would love to take one of the great Handelian operas that have some of the greatest music ever written for opera, and work with a very sensitive contemporary writer to reconceive the whole book.  We could tighten these up to be the powerful two- to two-and-a-quarter hour show which I think is in them.  It would be a glory; you’d have that magnificent music, but it would be in a thing with a kind of dramatic impact.  I wouldn’t hesitate to do this for a minute, as I don’t think Handel would have hesitated to it in his day.  He adapted himself very well to the values of his time.

BD:    As the world keeps getting faster and faster and everything becomes micropressed and microchipped, supposed two hundred years from now some composer of operas that are in vogue that run 42 minutes each says, “We should take the operas of Robert Ward and condense them into the 42 minute length.”  What do you say to that?

RW:    If they kept the basic values which are in my shows, which are the fundamental story line
the fundamental characters and the dramatic situations that are embodied in themI wouldn’t object.  I will say that I think it might be harder in The Crucible than in some other operas because The Crucible is conceived in a way as a kind of four-movement symphony.  You can’t exactly go into a Beethoven symphony and cut sixteen bars here and another thirty bars there because it’s conceived from beginning to end.  That’s the way the acts of The Crucible are set up.  There aren’t introductions to arias or tailings on ensembles.  They don’t exist in it.

BD:    So your work has nothing that’s insignificant?    

RW:    Well, at least as I’ve conceived it structurally.  I believe that to be true.  Now that doesn’t mean that it is all sheer gold, and it’s other peoples’ points of views that are ultimately more important than mine.  But at least my conception of music drama is that it has a kind of tightness dramatically where you can’t take a note out of it.  As you know, the opera The Crucible is shorter than the play.  It’s more succinct, and the things that we have cut, I think, have not in any way destroyed any dramatic line.  In fact, when working with Miller that was the one thing he felt very strongly about, that it should in no way ever be hurt in the piece.

BD:    And you feel that you succeeded?

RW:    Yeah.  I think we did.

BD:    When you are writing an opera, are you writing for yourself or for a public, and if a public, which public?

RW:    Ultimately all you can write is for yourself because you can’t take it out there and ask if they like this, and then take it to thirty more people, and if twenty don’t like it then you decide to take it back and rework it.  You can’t do that.  But if I am asked to write a string quartet for an audience that is going to be a highly specialized audience in that field, I will write it with kind of that ambience in mind.  When I write a work for an opera house, that would be rather a different work
even form the choice of the subject itselfthan a work I would do if someone came along and said that he wanted to produce a work on Broadway.  I would probably look for a rather different kind of story, one with those realities in mind.  I really am not one that thinks that in all of this wedding of opera and music-theatre that we have, that it is going to go so far that there aren’t still going to be some differencesthe difference between a Johann Strauss and a Richard Strauss, if you like.  It isn’t that one has any less value as art than the other, but they’re different.  They were conceived for a different kind of ambience, a different kind of audience.

BD:    So the people that are trying to blur the lines are moving in the wrong direction?

RW:    No, I don’t think so, but I think that you can get caught up in a kind of vague general philosophizing about this which forgets the practical realities.  Let me express this in terms of a specific show.  When you do South Pacific, for the role of Emile de Becque you can use a great opera singer.  If he’s very appealing, he’ll do it very well.

RW:    That was the Pinza role?

RW:    Yes, that was the Pinza role.  On the other hand, an opera singer is not going to do Bloody Mary very well.  You’ve got to have someone that can belt that thing out in Broadway style.  These are two entirely different ways of approaching vocal projection, and so you have to deal with these things very separately.  Those are the nuts and bolts that you can’t deny if you’re going to do this.  I was at the rehearsals of Sweeney Todd at the New York City Opera, and it was very interesting because suddenly you had everything turned around there.  In the Broadway production, you had Broadway singers who had this heavy middle register that they can belt things out, and they’re very shaky up on the top.  The composers have to write the top notes very carefully for them.  They were miked up over a very small orchestra, but a rather brash, loud orchestra.  Suddenly, when New York City Opera did it, they had opera singers who had all the top notes, but they couldn’t belt out those middle notes.  They couldn’t sing anything else for weeks if they did.  They also decided that they would use their full orchestra, and it sounded like quagmire of mud down in the pit there.  It lost all of the brilliance and the sharpness of a Broadway orchestra.  You couldn’t hear the singers then over this, and so then they ultimately miked it up somehow in order to get the singers through.  And it was in this huge hall where you lost the visual context.  So suddenly everything wasn’t quite right about this.  It isn’t that it’s not a great show
it isbut you have to put things in the right place.

BD:    What is the right place for the operas of Robert Ward?

RW:    Except for one of the last operas, Abelard and Heloise, which really is kind of a grand opera and can be done in any size opera house very effectively, I would much prefer the five other operas to be done in smaller houses because they simply are tight enough dramatically that they need much closer contact with the audience with what’s going on onstage.

BD:    Would they work well on television?

RW:    Very well, yes, but to be the most effective, I would want to do some reworking of them for television, definitely.

BD:    So it wouldn’t be just a televised performance.

RW:    No, no.  I really feel that there are all kinds of things which I would want to do before they would be maximally effective on television.

BD:    Then would you object if The Crucible was on the series Live from the Chicago Opera Theater?

RW:    No, I wouldn’t object, but if we did it and if we had the option of rethinking this from the bottom up as a television production, there are some things that we could do which would improve it, rather than just sticking cameras on it regardless of how sophisticated we have become in that technique.

BD:    Then would it lose something for the people watching it live in the theatre?

RW:    Yeah, absolutely.  But you know you get entirely different values when the show is done on television.  Abelard and Heloise, an opera I did a couple years ago, was actually televised by the South Carolina television.  They have a very fine director there, and some of the scenes were taken of the stage performance.  They could focus on two faces so the impact is colossal, and there is no way on stage you are ever going to get that for an audience of 2,500 people. 

BD:    This excites you as a composer, to be able to direct the interest and the attention of the audience?

RW:    Sure, absolutely, just as your big, massive scenes never really come off on television.  They are always kind of contrived.  It’s a medium that can get that other impact.

BD:    Would your operas not work in CinemaScope?

RW:    In the movies you can do both.  You can enlarge all of the intimate scenes onto the screen and that works, but you also can get these vast kinds of crowd scenes and so forth.  You have the best of all worlds there.  Before I had ever written an opera, when I was a student at the Eastman School, I had always wanted to write an opera.  This was in the thirties when the first big sound movies were coming out and the big musicals were done.  I frankly thought that just as drama had been drying up all over the country and the movies were taking over, the same thing was going to happen with opera because the sound was getting not too bad, and they could put those lavish, big Hollywood orchestras on things.  I even knew the show that I wanted to do at that time, Maxwell Anderson
’s Winterset, and I thought, “Gee, that would be marvelous.”  I still think would make a tremendous opera, but you can’t get the rights on this.  A whole bunch of us have wanted to.  Leonard Bernstein wanted it and I tried, but Maxwell Anderson thought of this as his great poetic drama, and he would never want a word of it touched.  Well, you couldn’t do the whole work, so I gave up the whole idea.  Then the war came and it wasn’t until about five years after the war that Douglas Moorewho was a great friend and helped me greatly in my early yearsasked me one day.  He said, “Bob, have you ever thought of doing an opera?” because he knew songs of mine and my orchestral music.  I said, “Yes I have, but I don’t know.”  He said I really ought to.  At that time they had the Columbia Workshop, which was really the first place that gave American composers a chance in this country.  So it was out of that that I went for the first opera.

BD:    I’m glad you got that opportunity.  [Both chuckle] 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is opera art or is opera entertainment?

RW:    Well, I tell you, it’s lousy opera if it isn’t both.  To me there’s never any conflict between the two. 
Entertainment is probably the wrong word.  What it really has to be is something that the minute that the curtain goes upor the lights come on if it’s a moviethat engrosses you and keeps you with it to the end.  If it is, this can be serious or very tragic, and it can have a great social message.  But the important thing is that it simply holds you with it and communicates what it has to say with its full impact.  That’s entertaining to me.

BD:    What is the role of the critic, or what should it be?

RW:    I think that we need to learn that you cannot possibly hear a major, serious opera or music-theatre piece once and judge it. 
You will get certain impressions from it, but you really can’t criticize it.  I’ve known of no one who can.  I’m not talking about a musical here, where the records have come out beforehand and people have had a chance to get the music a bit, and the story is pretty transparent.

BD:    Should grand opera then go to the trouble of putting out a cast album first?

RW:    It would be a great idea, but it’s a very costly business.  There simply isn’t that kind of potential money in it.

BD:    Where is opera going today?

RW:    There is this kind of merging which we have going on, where in a way opera is going to Broadway and the musical theatre is coming into the opera house.  I think we are going through a period when a number of important things are happening.  The idea that Broadway is profitable just ain’t the truth anymore!  You listen to Hal Prince bitterly complaining, “I’m getting out of Broadway; you can’t do anything there!”  [See my Interview with Hal Prince.]  One of the reasons for this is the business of producing on Broadway, particularly if you do it on that kind of lavish scale, is so costly, that you can no longer afford the failures.  That side of the musical theatre is now becoming non-profit essentially.  Meanwhile opera companies, by absorbing some of the great, standard Broadway musicals into their repertory are finding that they are developing new audiences.  If they don’t get silly and feel that they have to produce these things on a sort of Hal-Prince level, they can have some pretty great successes and even make some money.  Not great amounts, but for instance the Houston Opera had such a great success with Porgy and Bess that they had to cut it off from the main opera company into a separate company because it was a profit-making venture.  In order to get that profit back in, they had to let it be that, and then the profits could go back to the main opera house.  So we are at a very funny transitional stage here.  But I have no sense of pessimism about it.  I think that we have a whole great cultural tradition here, and I see it only getting better.

BD:    There is a trend among music historians to go back to original texts.  People get material out of the wastebasket and put it on and hold it up as great stuff.  How do you feel about your own works being subjected to this type of thing?

RW:    If I’ve revised a work it’s because I thought something was the matter with it in the first version, and I don’t want anyone picking up that stuff and sticking it back in.  If any of this material is any good, I’ll find a way to use it in some other work.  As a matter of fact, there are two scenes in the original Lady from Colorado where the music was fine but they were wrong for the show.  So we took them out, but I wasn’t going to throw away that good stuff.  Then when I wrote a saxophone concerto a couple of years ago, it wound up there.  It’s a very good tradition.  Bach did it, Handel did it, Rossini did it, even Verdi did it.

BD:    So the musicologists are completely on the wrong track in trying to get the original versions of things?

RW:    If there are versions that were put aside by the composers themselves, I think yes.

BD:    Does the real future of opera lie in the smaller productions all around the country rather than at the big three opera houses?

RW:    I do think that if the big three opera houses were simply to take on these shows, suddenly everyone would imitate them.  To give you an example, about twenty years ago, a few of the major conductors began to suddenly do all the Mahler symphonies.  Now these symphonies are done by every orchestra in the country just because the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony did them.  There is a great sense of following after these things; they set a kind of pattern, and we need this.  I remind Ardis Krainik every time I see her, and she’s trying to do something which was certainly not done previously there.  [See my Interview with Ardis Krainik.]  You’re always likely to get greater adventure on account of the smaller companies where they can do that kind of thing much better.  It gets those companies a place in the sun which simply repeating another performance of the standard repertory won’t achieve, and it provides an excitement in their life which is not the big-star kind of thing.  I listen to those Met broadcasts, and every time one of the great stars really massacres an aria or was wobbling all over the place, the audience still goes wild.  I can’t believe my ears; what are they listening to that they do this?  The fact is all they are doing is applauding themselves for being in that place when that great, famous person is making that noise up there... and it is noise, some of it.

BD:    Thank you so very much for coming to Chicago, and for spending time with me this afternoon.

RW:    It was my pleasure.  Thank you.


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© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This is the first of two conversations with Robert Ward.  This interview was recorded at the home of Alan Stone, Founder and General Manager of the Chicago Opera Theater, on May 20, 1985.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB three days later, and again in 1986, 1987, 1992, and 1996.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in hte Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, and in the Oral History American Music Collection at Yale University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.  [Note: The second interview was done at his hotel in Evanston, Illinois, in February of 2000.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on both WNUR and Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2010, and also was given to Yale.]

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.