Leah Rankin | Staff Writer
“John Proctor’s the devil’s man, devil’s man,” proclaimed the Rev. Samuel Parris. “John Proctor’s the devil’s man. Beware! Beware!”
In 1961, Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” was adapted for opera by composer Robert Ward. In a puritanical Salem, Mass., family drama becomes hysteria when neighbors accuse one another of witchcraft.
Meant as an allegory for McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s, Miller entrusted his stage play to Ward, who created a haunting and emotional opera that won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1962.
Fifty years later, the Chautauqua School of Music’s Voice Program is staging the opera with two casts for two days only. The Crucible opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Fletcher Music Hall.
Zachary Altman, who will portray the character of Proctor on opening night, said this is one of the most difficult roles he has ever taken on.
“The play is visceral, and so is the opera,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I’ve done that’s this dramatic.”
Altman knows this opera from the inside out. Earlier this year, he was in the chorus of The Crucible with the Sarasota Opera in Florida. As he watched the leads perform, he soon recognized the incredible stamina he would need to portray Proctor.
“It’s Olympic singing,” Altman said.
The Crucible is written for high voices and spans an exhausting two octaves. Librettist Bernard Stambler lifted the text from Miller’s play for the musical score; therefore, the opera is sung in English in Miller’s original words.
The opera is about two hours long, so if there is one thing these opera students have to learn, it is how to pace themselves.
“I have to decide in rehearsals which days I sing and which days I fake it,” said Alex Gmeinder, who will play Parris both nights of the show.
Gmeinder said being single cast in a double-cast opera means he not only learns the opera faster but also gets to see different interpretations of the same characters.
“It’s interesting to see how each cast is different,” Gmeinder said, “and how each cast member handles their character differently.”
Both Altman’s and Gmeinder’s characters are pitted against one another in The Crucible. Amidst the chaos of a small town’s superstitions, Parris searches for a scapegoat to send to the gallows. Proctor becomes that scapegoat and renders a false confession that he ultimately tears up to protect his good name.
Parris is part of the villain crowd, Gmeinder said. He is power-hungry and wants recognition for solving the town’s problems. He is antagonized by the fact that he is powerless at a time when he should be revered as a savior.
Proctor is strong, dignified and stoic, Altman said, and has the “lion’s share” of singing, since he occupies the stage for almost the entire opera. He accepts accusations of witchcraft to spare those closest to him, but in a dramatic act of redemption, he retracts his confession to vouchsafe an honorable reputation to his sons.
“It’s a really interesting process to portray (those characters) while singing this grand music,” Altman said. “They’re roles that really take experience.”
These two productions, directed by Jay Jackson, are historically rendered with period costumes. There will be no orchestra; rather, the music will be played on a piano. A lighting system also will be brought into the hall for a more dramatic effect.
Although the play evokes the paranoia of McCarthyism, Jackson said, The Crucible’s themes resonate through many decades of American history, from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the fight for gay rights in this country today.
“It’s nice to do something that has such a historical base to it,” Jackson said. “There’s so much research that can be mined from it.”
Except for the affair between Proctor and Abigail Williams, Miller crafted his play after true historical events. In many ways, this makes character development easier for the cast members.
“I will push them as far as they can go emotionally,” Jackson said. “I hope to get them to the point where they’re actually sobbing.”
The singers will have a professional wig and makeup artist available to them before the two shows. Jackson said he tells each of the singers to stand in front of a mirror for five minutes after they have been transformed into their character so that they can “flesh out a three-dimensional, real person for themselves.”
Jackson said the characters Miller created for his play had real emotions and real conflicts that still resonate with today’s audiences. The characters were so full that they were naturally operatic, he said.
The Crucible is a dark story with deep roots in American history, a story that reflects not how far we have come as a nation but just how much we remain the same.
Tonight’s production of The Crucible is open to the public. Donations benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund. A second performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.