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.
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
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
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
BD: Have you
tampered with anything but the
orchestration — any of the melodic lines or
RW: No, otherwise
it’s exactly the same.
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
powerful, too, but that scene really needs an intermission, so that’s
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
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 mine — was
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.
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 company — is
going to pick the piece up by any
means, but there is no doubt that it helps. And it helps one’s
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 favorably
— if 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
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.
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
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
BD: What about
RW: Oh, yes I’ve
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
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]
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
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
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!
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
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
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
through the whole writing. I have had a very good time with those
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
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
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
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
the repetitions — that 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
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
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 them — I
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
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
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
is going to be a highly specialized audience in that field, I will
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 itself — than 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 differences — the 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
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
RW: Yes, that was
the Pinza role. On the other hand, an opera singer is not going
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
were miked up over a very small orchestra, but a rather
brash, loud orchestra. Suddenly, when New York City Opera did it,
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
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 is — but 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
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,
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
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
have become in that technique.
BD: Then would it
lose something for the people
watching it live in the theatre?
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?
absolutely, just as your big,
massive scenes never really come off on television. They are
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
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
wanted it and I tried, but Maxwell Anderson thought of this as his
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 Moore — who
was a great
friend and helped me greatly in my early years — asked
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
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 up — or the lights come on
if it’s a movie — that
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
BD: Where is opera
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
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
noise, some of it.
BD: Thank you
so very much for coming to Chicago, and for spending time with me this
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,
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
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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.