Leah Rankin | Staff Writer
As the School of Music Voice Program celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Crucible’s premiere with its second performance at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Fletcher Music Hall, there is one Chautauquan who will know the opera more than most.
Spiro Malas, husband of voice chair Marlena Malas, was in the very first production of The Crucible when it debuted with the New York City Opera in 1961. He had a small part as the character Francis Nurse, but he said he went to every rehearsal, even when he didn’t have to sing.
“I loved the music so much; I just wanted to be surrounded by it,” he said. “I loved the music so much I would even be at the rehearsals when I wasn’t called. (The cast’s) voices were so powerful.”
The Crucible began as a play by Arthur Miller and tells the story of a superstitious puritan community in Salem, Mass., who, in their paranoia, point fingers at each other to hang for witchcraft in order to be absolved of the same fate. The story is based on true historical events and is an allegory for McCarthyism and the communist threat during the 1950s.
Malas said when the audience came to opening night in 1961, they were ready to rip the opera apart. The play “The Crucible” had won a Tony Award in 1953, and the audience was afraid that the composer, Robert Ward, would take too many liberties.
During the opera, Malas remembered, the orchestra was too overpowering. One audience member shouted, “Sing out!” because the singers were masked by the instruments.
When he wasn’t onstage, Malas listened to the lead singers, Chester Ludgin as John Proctor and Norman Kelley as the Rev. Samuel Parris, from the wings. Malas said there was a moment at the end of the opera, after the final note had been sung, when the audience sat in silence. There was no telling if the next sound would be booing or applause.
“I think they were stunned,” Malas said. “There was that moment of silence where people were afraid to clap.”
And then the audience erupted in an ovation.
It confirmed what Malas had felt all along.
“It makes a better opera than a play,” he said.
Malas has been coaching the student cast members of The Crucible for the past few weeks. He told them not to think of “big, fat round sounds,” because the words are just too powerful.
“Give me the words, and I promise the voice will sound terrific,” he told them.
The music from this opera has stayed with Malas ever since that New York City debut. The music is so moving, he said, that he had to dismiss a student from a lesson because Malas was too choked up to continue.
“I listen to the music, and it’s the same as 50 years ago,” Malas said. “The music was so melodic and so beautiful that it just stayed with me.”
Now Malas gets to see his voice students experience the opera for the first time.
“It’s a full turnaround for him,” said Rachel Sterrenberg, who will play the part of Mary Warren in tonight’s production.
The show tears at your heart and tugs at your soul, Sterrenberg said. The music expresses the angst of the play and emphasizes the dramatic tension in a way that the play could not. But creating an opera from a play is “like trying to fit a book to a movie,” she said, and not everything translates.
The opera is full of emotions that even a modern audience can understand, said director Jay Jackson. Personal struggles — both internal and external — as well as redemption, conspiracy and guilt are all things audiences understand.
“The sacrifice of self to a greater good as a moral right or personal integrity” is one of the greatest themes of the opera, Jackson said. And in the end, “the audience is basically the hangman.”
The emotions that tear at the audience will be twofold for Malas.
During these two performances, Malas will be transported from that budding young opera star listening to The Crucible from the wings of a New York City stage, to watching his students portray the characters 50 years later.
Tonight’s performance is free. Donations benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund.