by Neville Cohn
Robert Ward may be 91 years old but his mind is as alert and his wit as sharp as someone a third of his age. It would have been a unique experience for the WAAPA opera students taking part in Ward’s opera The Crucible to ask one of America’s Grand Old Men of opera about interpretative and technical nuances in the roles they are to sing in a season commencing Friday 10th.
With great patience and good humour, Ward gave his views on this or that nuance to students listening raptly to his words as he spoke from his home in the USA’s North Carolina about his collaboration with that most celebrated of American playwrights Arthur Miller as well as librettist Bernard Stambler.
“I wrote the opera around the time the movie The Misfits was being filmed and Miller and Marilyn Monroe’s marriage was falling apart,” he recalled.
Marvin pointed out that, unlike the operas of Verdi and Puccini, his setting of The Crucible deliberately avoids set-piece arias that can be sung as stand-alone items in, say, an orchestral concert featuring a vocal soloist as this usually results in audience applause at aria’s conclusion. This, Marvin feels, would interrupt the narrative flow and weaken the emotional impact of the work as a whole. He talked, too, of composers who influenced his development as a musician, among them one of his teachers Aaron Copland as well as musical giants such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.
Marvin has never been to Australia. “Some years ago, my wife and I were planning to visit Australia and New Zealand but my wife suffered a stroke and that effectively brought an end to our overseas travel”, said Ward whose opera won not only the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1962 but also the New York Music Critics Circle Citation.
Miller’s play, about the Salem, Massachusetts witchcraft trials in the 1690s and the judicial murder of blameless citizens who were found guilty of dabbling in the black arts and hanged en masse, was written in the 1950s as a response to the machinations of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities which branded many quite innocent people as communists, effectively ruining their reputations and ability to earn a living.
Ward’s setting of The Crucible is much vaunted as an icon of 20th century
American, yet , unlike, say, The Medium or The Telephone by Gian Carlo Menotti, that other American composer, The Crucible is difficult to find on CD. And although, it has been around for decades, the WAAPA production will be the first ever in Australia. It’s a production which should not be missed by anyone interested in the evolution of American opera or the history of Senator McCarthy’s crusade against often quite innocent people.
Also present at the conference phone call was Justin Bischof, the Canadian-born musician now based in New York. Bischof has the pivotal role of conductor of the opera season. This will be the first time he has conducted Ward’s opera. A musician
who is as versatile as he is gifted, Bischof is unusual in that he came to conducting via a career as an organist. “I began the organ when I was 14 and by 17, I decided that I really loved it – but I’ve always maintained an active career as pianist because I like the repertoire very much.”
Bischof got off to an early start, beginning piano lessons at the age of three years. “I also played the flute for about seven years and was in the school band when I lived in Toronto. Sadly, I haven’t kept up the flute but I’m about to start lessons on the cello as it is vital for a conductor who is not originally a string player to have a tactile sense of playing a stringed instrument.”
Bischof, a graduate of New York’s Manhattan School of Music, is Director of Music at the Church of St James the Less in New York State. “I’ve had Episcopalian church positions since university days – and as well as that, I’ve been pianist, organist and choral conductor at Westchester Reform Temple for 14 years.”
Bischof’s opera conducting includes performances of Menotti’s The Telephone and The Medium at the Hawaii Opera Theatre in Honolulu as well as productions of Mozart operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. He has also made a number of recordings as organist and is well known for his brilliant improvisations at the organ console.
The Crucible opens at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre (WAAPA) on Friday at 7:30pm.
Leith Taylor directs.