Opera Lively had the honor and privilege of talking face-to-face for almost two hours with great American composer Robert Ward, author of numerous symphonies, chamber works, ballets, and eight operas, among them the highly regarded The Crucible, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Mr. Ward at age 94 is a charming and sweet gentleman, always with a smile on his face, and still very much witty and sharp at this advanced age. Almaviva met him at his home in Durham, as part of Opera Lively's effort to support regional opera companies, in anticipation of Piedmont's Opera upcoming performance of The Crucible in Winston-Salem, NC. In addition to the interview below, please read our other article on this operat: Robert Ward and The Crucible . Showing on March 16 at 8 PM, 18 at 2 PM, and 20; for tickets, call 336-725-7101, or visit Piedmont Opera's web site.
Picture: © Opera Lively by Almaviva
SOME OF MR. WARD'S OPERAS
OL - Thank you for doing this. It’s a great honor for us.
RW – Oh, it’s all right.
OL – Which one of your eight operas is your favorite?
RW – Oh, I’ll tell you, I never think of favorites very much. Of course The Crucible has been the most famous one, but Abelard and Heloise which is my fifth opera is one that I have great affection for. Abelard and Heloise were a very famous pair of lovers back in Paris in the 12th century. It’s a beautiful story. He was a priest in the Catholic Church but one of those who were looking forward at that point, a revolutionary. She was a nun, but never wanted to be a nun because she much preferred to be a partner with Abelard. It’s a powerful story and a powerful opera with a lot of beautiful singing in it. People who know my other operas feel very strongly about that one.
OL – You did that one from the love letters that they wrote to each other, right?
RW – That’s right, that’s correct. That’s their earlier time, so we had to really make up the end of it. That’s a powerful story, I love that one. But I’ve done lots of comedies and light shows too.
OL – What about Roman Fever?
RW – Well, Roman Fever is a one-act opera. That story is a famous short story by Edith Wharton. It’s a story of two mothers about 40 who are now widows, but they each had a daughter. They had met originally when they were just about to get married, and they come back to this hotel which was above the Roman Forum down there. They had two daughters who were flappers in their twenties, and they have very good scenes. That one I’m very fond of, actually, and it’s had a great success, it’s played a lot.
It’s just this quartet of women from the bottom to the top voice, and an Italian waiter. That, I particularly enjoy because a couple of times I’ve been in Italy, the Italian waiters are always marvelous, because they want to show off their English, but they start a sentence with about three words in English and then they have to drop into Italian [laughs]. He is the one who tells the story of what is the Roman fever, which was actually back before they had any way to work against it, it was summer time and was a fever that came up out of the water. People would get away from it and go up in the mountains because it was dangerous. So that’s where the title comes from.
OL – Tell me about your last one, A Friend of Napoleon.
RW – A Friend of Napoleon is based on a short story by an American author, Richard Connell, who won a big prize for short stories for it way back in the mid twenties. He wrote his very lively story which all takes place when this very handsome twenty-year old daughter has been brought over by her aunt to introduce her to an Italian count, which is a business associate of her father who is a business man, and he was anxious, he wanted a title. At that time many Americans wanted to get involved with a title. When she meets him she doesn’t love him at all, meanwhile she’s met a young lawyer who is rather a liberal person, and they fall in love, and they get together at the end.
OL – And they go to a wax museum, right?
RW – That’s right. [laughs] They go to this room that is made of all these famous terrible old people, so it’s a very amusing story, it’s a comedy.
OL – Have you thought of writing a ninth opera after that one?
RW – No, I’ll tell you, I’m not composing much these days, really hardly at all. I’m writing a book and have been spending my time with that and with going to the doctors who are keeping me alive. [laughs] I think I’ve made my pitch… [laughs]
MR. WARD'S INTERESTING LIFE EXPERIENCES
OL – Is the book about your memories?
RW – Yes, I started about ten years ago, I was writing my autobiography, and now there is another writer, Robert Kolt, who did his thesis on The Crucible and published it as a book, and he was asked by the publishers of that book if he’d be interested in doing my biography, which he was very much. So now we’re working together on it, he is living very close here, now. One of the main aspects of what we’re writing about is that I’m very concerned about the state of the world at this point. We had all this talk about atomic warfare and it’s a topic that concerns me, it reminds me of my time in the Army during World War II.
OL – Tell me about that.
RW - It happens that I was in the Army for 4 years during WWII, and I was with the division that took 5 different islands in the Pacific, that the Japanese had occupied. The last one that we took was the island from which we had been training to be the first troops to get into Japan, and while we were there of course the atomic bomb fell. First it was a tremendous relief to us because that was going to be a very tough combat there, but then as it turned out, when we dropped the second one the Japanese surrendered so instead of going into Japan we were actually the first occupying forces in South Korea.
OL – Was it a traumatic experience?
RW – Not really; I saw a good deal of the war, but also had a wonderful four years there in the Army, because when I first got in I was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, which is a big cavalry post. You could prepare yourself to ride either a motorcycle, drive a truck or you could ride a horse. Of course no one was riding horses for this war. Then I was training for the motorcycle. Then about a month or so I got a note from the commandant at Fort Riley to meet in his office in a few days. It turned out that I knew three other composers and three writers who were there, we came to know each other in the camp, and they got the same note. And we wondered – ‘what did we do?’
We got there and the commandant was very pleasant – and he said ‘I suppose you fellows are wandering what we called you here for’ – we said, yeah, what did we do? And he laughed and he said – ‘Well, we’re getting you fellows together because we wonder whether you could write an all-soldier musical show at Camp Riley’ – and we were put on special duty and we wrote the show, and we toured around the Midwest with it for about six months. So then when that was closing down I went to the Army Music School which was to prepare band leaders for the Army, and it was fundamentally to teach me to conduct – well I had already been teaching conducting at Juilliard! [laughs] So I went to that for a month and they signed me up to the 7th Division on the West Coast, and my career went on to the Pacific from there. I always joke because I spent much more time in the ocean on ships than a lot of the Navy ever had.
OL – Yes, I read about it in your biography… You had a fascinating life; on top of being a composer you were a businessman, an administrator, an educator, a soldier, a professor…
RW – Fundamentally what my goal was, was composing. But a young composer couldn’t make a very glamorous living. Particularly at that time I was married and had two children, so the other thing of course I could do was to teach. When I got out of the Army I had six month left to finish my degree at Juilliard, so I finished it and was hired there and was there for ten years, teaching, and that was my principal income. But also I had some rather good successes with works of mine, so I was beginning to get commissions, and then when Juilliard moved from where it was originally down to Lincoln Center, I had just sort of started a Development Office out of Juilliard, was leaning towards the business side and fundraising side of it, and when the school moved they weren’t sure what was going to happen at that point to that office. And just then I was offered a job heading a music publishing firm – Galaxy Music Corporation, so I went to that for ten years.
Then a good friend of mine, Vittorio Giannini, became the first chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts – we were both in the faculty at Juilliard – he asked me to be the Dean of the School of Music but I declined because I also had gotten a Guggelheim fellowship at that time and it was so rare to have a whole year free to do nothing but write so I said, no, I won’t take it now. But then he died in November of his second year there at the NCSA, it was just the second year of the school and it was a great crisis. I was up in Maine in this Guggelheim, when my wife and I were sitting having a drink before dinner and I learned of his passing, I said I had a feeling I was going to hear from them.
Sure enough, within a week or so I was asked to come down. It was interesting because the way they worked about getting someone was before the government sort of stepped in and made it a sort of official thing you had to go through, to hire people, and that hadn’t prevailed there, so what the trustees did, is that they wrote to every well known musician who would know what that school was to require, and they got these letters back, and after I was hired there, they said every single letter mentioned my name on the list. So they then got in touch with me again, I went down, we talked about it. I accepted, and I spent twelve very wonderful years there at the school.
But then it got a little complicated, because I had stepped down from the administration at the end of seven years, because I just wasn’t getting the time to write, and I was finishing an opera for New York City Opera, so I stepped down, but it was funny, they were very happy with the period I was there, so even though I had stepped down, they kept drawing me back into things and I still didn’t have time to compose.
So I finally decided to move on, I knew I could go back to New York City and get a job, so, when Mary Semans who was James Buchanan Duke’s great-niece [OL’s note: J.B. Duke, tobacco industrialist and philanthropist who created the Duke Endowment that made Duke University thrive] and she had her own foundation – her husband who was a doctor, James Semans, was the chairman of the board at the School of the Arts so we came to know each other very well. She was of course very involved at Duke University, and so when I told them what I was going to do, that I was going to leave, she said ‘we can’t have you leaving North Carolina,’ two weeks later they had created a chaired professorship at Duke for me, so I finished my career there.
THE FIRST TWO OPERAS, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, AND THE CRUCIBLE
OL – Back to your operas, let’s talk about The Crucible. It’s not atonal but plays with rhythms and metrics a lot. What can you tell us about the musical structure of your opera?
RW – Well, actually for me the structure of any opera I do comes from the libretto, because this gives you all the curve of when there is high tension in the opera and when things are happily rolling along, and when it is really dramatic and so forth, and that’s actually what controls the form. The one thing that I believe is that there is no sense in putting the story to music unless the music is very memorable. When I was first doing my first operas was just when there was a lot of experimentation going on. I knew all about it and I even taught it when I was at Juilliard but I still believe that the most important thing in opera and in music is the melody, that’s what people remember. So, my operas have very big set pieces, for chorus, groups of singers and so forth, but they come when they should come with the story.
My first librettist was Bernard Stambler who was very interesting in that when he was a high school student in New York he was a member of the claque at the Metropolitan, so he knew more opera than I did, and he was a fine writer. When we met, we just decided, let’s do an opera, and we just started to read, and I remembered the story for He Who Gets Slapped, which was an incredible story by a Russian, Leonid Andreyev. I picked up the volume of it which I had, and I read the first two acts and I thought they were terrific, it’s set in a circus, here was this colorful setting, it was all from the ring itself in the circus, where everything happened, rehearsals, it was a small circus, not a big one. The characters were colorful, and this man who turns out to be He Who Gets Slapped, comes in and he is a sort of advanced intellectual but he has a lot of ideas but people haven’t picked them up. So finally in a kind of distress as he is getting older he goes into this circus, he’d like to be a member of the circus, talks about what his role is going to be. He’s gonna be He Who Gets Slapped, because that’s been the history of his live, really.
Then there are these circus characters, the Bareback Rider, the Tangled King and Queen and she is a very beautiful young girl, she’s got a father who is really a phony and goes around as a count, then there is this very rich, nouveau rich man who is falling in love with this young girl. Well, she is in love with her partner and so the first two acts are just marvelous.
So I got in the phone and I called Bernard Stambler, said ‘Bernie, I think that this is a good possibility, do you have a copy?’ Yes, he had. I said, read it, then I went back and read the last two acts of it. It was very strange, because it was almost as if these two acts were for a different play, and we wondered about that and figured we’d have to make a lot of changes. Well, at that time Russian works weren’t copyrighted in this country, so, we’d have trouble getting it done in Russia, but we could get it done here.
So Bernie wrote a third act instead of two acts and it was just terrific, just right for the whole thing. So we set out to work and I got help from the Dickson Fund of Columbia University, and they were going to produce it but it turned out that it was too big for the hall where they did it at Columbia, and at the time I was on the faculty at Juilliard, and Bill Schuman, the president, said ‘Look, you can come and use the Juilliard auditorium,’ which was just right, we ended up using the Juilliard Orchestra, and we used a Juilliard singer and so forth, so everyone thought for a while that it was a Juilliard production… That got very good reviews, particularly from The New Yorker magazine; that proved to be one of my greatest helps. It was well done, and then the Ford Foundation gave the New York City Opera two seasons of American operas because they wanted to get it going. They did He Who Gets Slapped.
OL – How did the idea to do The Crucible come about?
RW - That was another case where the reviewer helped me a great deal. It was the same week that the Russian Ballet was doing Romeo and Juliet at the Met auditorium. Emile Renan, a member of our cast of He Who Gets Slapped which was being done at the same time, asked what were we going to do for our next opera – we said we weren’t sure, we were just getting over this one. He said, ‘look, I’ll tell you what’s the greatest play and will make the greatest American opera of all,’ and mentioned the Miller play; we went to see it, it was a Wednesday night.
The New Yorker magazine is mailed to its subscribers and it gets to them on Wednesdays, but then it comes out onto the news stands on Thursdays. We went in on Wednesday to see Miller’s play, and there at the theater I saw a woman down ahead of us with the magazine, and I was tempted to ask her if I could see the review section because I knew the review of our opera would come right after the one on Romeo and Juliet – but I thought – this is too corny, I won’t do that. So I was curious the whole night, and the next morning I picked up the magazine at the stand and the review was a dream.
I’ll tell you, there was this tremendous review of the Russian ballet, but then the reviewer started the second paragraph and said – ‘but of far greater significance…’ - and he gave this wonderful review of He Who Gets Slapped, and at the end he said ‘keep your eyes on these two men.’ Well, that was terrific.
So we had seen the Miller play, and emboldened by the review of my opera, I thought I should have the courage to ask Miller for the rights to set his play to music.
WORKING WITH ARTHUR MILLER
OL – How did you get to him?
RW – At that time he had married Marilyn Monroe, and I was wondering how I could get to him directly, because if I’d have to go through the agency in New York it would be madness. My older brother was in the theater business in New York, so I called him and said, ‘see this review that I got in the magazine this week, I think I should ask Arthur Miller to set The Crucible to opera, do you have any connection that would get me directly to Arthur Miller?’ So he said, ‘let me think about it.’
It turned out that one of his best friends was Miller’s producer Frank Taylor. So the next day I called my brother again and he said ‘well, have three tickets for the Millers and my friend Frank and they’ll see your opera.’ There was one performance left of He Who Gets Slapped.’ When word turned around to New York City Opera that she – Marilyn Monroe – would turn up to see this opera, they even sold tickets based on that [laughs], but anyhow, as usual, she didn’t get there, but Arthur and Frank came. And afterward we went out to one of the hotels to have a drink, and we began talking about this. At that time he had a number of other composers who were interested in it, but it turned out that he was very well impressed with He Who Gets Slapped, and that started it.
We got to that point of the contract, he said, ‘it’s a lot to ask but could you write a scene or two so that I can get some idea of what you do?’ We said ‘that’s fine.’ To show him the scene when it was ready, I got the top soprano in He Who Gets Slapped, I had a baritone friend who was going to do it, but the he couldn’t make it and I ended up singing the main role, the soprano and I went there and sang for Arthur Miller, and he liked it and said, ‘that’s it, go ahead, I’ll talk to my agent,’ and then we started that opera.
OL – How was it, working with Arthur Miller?
RW - Wonderful. He had a wonderful understanding of all of the various arts. He was at that time going back and forth to Hollywood because they were doing the movie of the play, but he was wonderful to work with all the way through; he knew what a great painting should be, or a great opera, or a great ballet. That was always the spirit of it.
OL – Was he difficult at any point?
RW - There was one scene that is a very popular one in the opera, which when The Crucible was first produced as a play, the director of it, with whom apparently Arthur didn’t get along as well as he’d have liked, had suggested this scene that was a potential love scene between the young girl Abigail and John Proctor, so, Miller had written the scene but didn’t like it, didn’t want it in. But the director said, ‘look, this play needs a scene there, the right one, if you didn’t write the right one, now write the right one!’ [laughs] So Arthur rewrote it, it was great.
But then we had the same problem when we started to write the opera; Arthur wanted again to drop that scene, even the replacement scene, he wasn’t very happy about it, I think it may have been because his marriage with Marilyn Monroe was breaking up. Anyhow, just like his first director, we also said we felt we needed that scene, we’d like to write that scene into the opera. Arthur resisted, but then Bernie wrote the libretto for the scene, and the libretto for an opera has about a third of the number of words you will have in the play. Arthur had written a long scene and didn’t really get to the point. Bernie shortened it, got to the point, did it just marvelously, and that convinced Arthur, and we were able to have the scene.
MORE ON THE CRUCIBLE AND ITS SUCCESS WITH PUBLIC AND CRITIC
OL – Was it hard to deal with 21 characters in The Crucible?
RW – Well, there are 21 characters but there is a pretty clear definition between those who are minor characters and the first ones. Because the first ones, they are really about five. But they are all very colorful. The role of Tituba, such a good role, and you know, the play doesn’t have the second time when she comes up in the opera, in the last act. But you couldn’t lose this character, she was too important, so Bernie and I thought, ‘look, let’s give her that moment in the last act,’ which is closer than anything I’ve ever wrote to being a folk song.
OL – So how was the opera received when it premiered?
RW – Yes, I have a funny story to tell about the premiere. At the end of the opera there was a silence in which you heard a woman break up and weep, and then suddenly the whole house got on its feet, stood up, well I was thinking it was kind of corny for me to get up on my own piece, so I sat with my wife there, and there was an elderly woman sitting next to us, and after the applause went on for a little while, she turned around and said [mimicking her voice, angrily], ‘Young man, don’t you realize what you just heard! Stand up and applaud’ [laughs a lot]. And I told her, ‘but I’m the composer!’ [laughs] It turns out that she was a famous manager for singers, and that funny event cemented our friendship… she helped us a lot after that, in the music business.
OL – And what did the critics say?
RW – That same reviewer from The New Yorker came out and said that this opera was even better than the first one; he said, ‘come and see this work, I haven’t heard a better contemporary opera since Richard Strauss.’
OL – Wow! And then you went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
RW – Yes, the jury met about a month after that, they had been to the opera to see it, and apparently they all loved it except one of them, the reviewer for the New York Times. It was kind of interesting because he was the one person who wrote not a very good review of it. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking about, because if he didn’t like contemporary things that were going on, then The Crucible should have been all for him. But he rarely wrote good reviews, that’s what the real answer is. And anyhow, the rest of the critics voted and they all voted for it as the winner, and he was furious with this, he was trying to get them all to go his way.
OL – Where you very surprised, or were you expecting it?
RW – Well, I was just elated [laughs].
MR. WARD AND HIS SINGERS
OL – Were you satisfied with the singers that performed your operas?
RW – I do know some that I have great faith in. The Crucible introduced me to a whole group of terrific singers… you know, NYCO was the company that the people were just fighting to go up to the top from there, and that’s why their cast was so good sometimes, because they were getting them just before they went into the Met and so forth.
For instance, Chester Ludgin who did the first and many other performances of The Crucible was a tremendous baritone; he had everything you could ask for, vocally. He wasn’t a handsome guy, but was a tremendous actor and just right for the show. He worked on other shows of mine later on, and many of the others. In New York there were always plenty of wonderful singers. I’ve had other performances there and I was always amazed at some of the younger singers.
OL – How long would it take for you to write an opera?
RW – Well, actually, I worked on my first opera for four or five years while I worked on other pieces at the same time; I didn’t have a deadline for it since there was no performance in sight until I got it done at the Juilliard. But The Crucible I was at work on it about nine months. As a matter of fact I was finishing the last act and the score for it 11 days before it was going up. But Julius Rudel the head of the NYCO company had faith in me. I was really pushing it, day and night, in those last months.
HIS OTHER OPERAS
OL – Let’s talk about your other operas we haven’t talked about yet. Lady Kate.
RW – Lady Kate was the first one after The Crucible, and it was for the Colorado opera house out there, Central City Opera, they have a wonderful summer season, and one of the trustees on their board was a Hollywood guy, and he also liked new people who wrote books. They commissioned me to write Lady Kate which was originally called The Lady From Colorado. That was a comedy all about the founding, when Colorado became a state, so it was a political fight for the first senator. It was a lot of fun, a lot of characters there that were interesting. The writer who had written the original novel, Romel Croy, he was a wonderful guy, with a wonderful sense of humor… he sat on the rehearsals, and said ‘I can't imagine how you fellows have done this.’ He was just so impressed.
OL – What about Claudia Legare?
RW – That was another great play that we used, Hedda Gabbler from Ibsen, it was written about Norway, and one of the qualities of that play is that it was a Northern climate and I didn’t feel that I could write the kind of music for it if we kept it there. And I asked, ‘could we move it to a different place?’ Finally after a number of possibilities we came down to Charleston, SC after the Civil War, which made a perfect transplant for it. We could use all the characters, the qualities of the characters were the same but we could put it next to this big historical thing, and Bernie my librettist was a historian so he loved the idea, so that’s where we transferred it to. Bernard Stambler was just wonderful, he could put it anywhere he wanted and it came out right.
OL – But that one wasn’t very well received because critics thought the music was too traditional, right? Did you have any trouble with the critics involved with the atonal movement?
RW – That’s right, as a matter of fact we were actually commissioned to write it by NYCO, but we took our time because we were involved in a number of other things. During this time, this was just when all of the critics in New York had changed, all the older ones who were there when I did The Crucible and the earlier operas had left, and they had these young guys who had gone to universities where they had been trained and they thought, ‘oh of course the 12-tone system was going to be the future, it had to be that.’ Well, the show was not 12-tone music. I’ve written 12-tone pieces, I know how to do it, but you write this for a certain kind of occasion, and for this one I wrote music that I felt was appropriate for this place and time and characters.
OL – Minutes to Midnight is the only one we haven’t talked about.
RW – About that one, it’s a futurist kind of libretto about a nuclear apocalypse. There was a man in The New Yorker magazine who wrote all of the stories about the development of the atomic bomb and so forth, Dan Lang. And of course this was a topic that was important to me, due to the aftermath of having been there in the Pacific when that bomb fell, and we had that feeling of relief that we wouldn’t have to go into Japan, on the other hand when we thought a little about it, this started this whole new ethical dilemma.
So this guy was a fine writer but he loved to go to the opera, and he spoke to the original critic there, who had written those good reviews on me, and told him what his interest was, to write an opera about the stories of the great scientists. And so the critic gave him my number, and I had this one phone call one day, and he told me who he was and so forth, and what his interest was, so I said, ‘come on, let’s have lunch, let’s get together on this.’
So we talked about it, and thought about some of the ancient scientists who had been burned at the stake for their ideas, we went through those, and had five or six different possibilities, but then one day we said ‘why not do it about the present time and the future,’ and of course we both felt the same way about the future, so that’s why we created that opera. I have not had a second production of it yet. It’s not a question of anything being a matter with the opera, but people are kind of afraid of it.
MR. WARD AND CONTEMPORARY OPERAS
OL – Doctor Atomic by Adams was another very good one on the same topic.
RW – Yes.
OL – What are your thoughts on contemporary opera?
RW – Well, there are some composers that I like, they are rather different ones for different reasons, they wrote very different kinds of works, for instance Carlisle Floyd in a way has had great success with his operas, and he certainly is no great revolutionary at all, but he does know his business, he knows what to do, and has written practically nothing but opera, as you know, differently from a lot of the rest of us who wrote symphonies and other kinds of music. But I do think that those operas show real belief.
That one by John Adams, he’s been having a good deal of success, Nixon in China, I saw the first performance of it in New York and I thought that his music is a particular kind, based on these thumping rhythms which go on and on and on all the time, I get a little bored with that, but there’s no question that he’s chosen that as his way of writing opera, he does it with some conviction. He’s chosen his sort of musical style which I find that he is rarely great melodically, but he has a theatrical sense that works. So anyhow he’s one.
Among the older ones, for instance, the English composers, William Walton, I saw one of his operas; he only wrote two, but that was good. Hindemith I thought was a great composer but not a great opera composer. The last 20 years when I’ve not been in New York anymore, I don’t get a chance to see many contemporary operas unless they come on down here.
OL – What do you think of Glass?
RW – Unfortunately I missed the last one they did here in Raleigh.
OL – Les Enfants Terribles.
RW – Yes, I don’t know that one.
OL – Oh, it was wonderful.
RW – Yeah. Everyone seems to like it. It’s interesting with dancers… I had tickets to go, but I can’t drive at night anymore and it happened that I didn’t have other transportation, so I didn’t go. I regret it.
MR. WARD'S PREFERENCES AS A COMPOSER OF OPERA AND INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC
OL – In your body of works you have lots of instrumental, symphonic music, and eight operas. What genre do you like best?
RW – I don’t have any favorites, because I’ve written seven symphonies, and I love to write symphonies, I understand the form very well, and they’ve done quite well. I’ve written lots of overtures and shorter pieces, some of them have been played a lot, but I do love vocal music in a way more than anything else; I’ve written a big cycle of songs based on poetry, and also an earlier piece that is religious. I don’t really have favorites, I’ve written a lot of chamber music; I also wrote lots of commercial work; I was lucky from the beginning; practically all of my work was commissioned, so, if they want this kind of music for this kind of occasion, I’ll do the best I can [laughs]. I don’t know if it’s the best that can be done.
OL – Igor Buketoff recorded two of your symphonies, the 3rd and the 6th.
RW – That’s right. Igor and I were at the conducting class at Juilliard together, that’s how I got to know him. From the time we first met we were very good friends. He was interested in the various works I was on, and the last one that he did was the orchestral piece which we did in Iceland. Originally William Strickland was to do it up there. They had no one to replace certain players, and the oboist got sick so we had to sit around and wait. Then Igor had to do a concert up there, and we got him to record the Third Symphony, and he did a very good job.
OL – When you look back at your body of works, would you redo anything, would you do anything differently?
RW – Well, I think that there are pieces in which I didn’t succeed as well as I did with others. I did the best I could.
OL – How did you get into composition?
RW - See, I started out as a boy soprano. All my life I had that background of singing. I was lucky to live in Cleveland Ohio, and Cleveland had some of the best schools in the country, and I had two years of composition in my two last years in high school, and that’s what got me started. But that started from the courses, we did Gilbert and Sullivan operas too, I got that, and then I went to the concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra which is as good an orchestra as there is in the country, so I heard that repertory earlier in my life.
OL – Why do you love opera?
RW – Well, I think, particularly in opera, that it requires a group of people who are believable people, that obviously are brought together in an opera because there are conflicts and love affairs, or whatever you have between them. The other thing about opera is that it calls on such variety. For instance He Who Gets Slapped is all in the circus, while The Crucible is in this terrible situation in New England, and something that involves of course witches and all that sort of thing; to really bring this kind of character to reality is inspiring. But if it’s comedy I want people to laugh and enjoy it that way. That variety is one of the things I like; I don’t like to be pigeonholed in one kind of work.
MR. WARD'S ADVICE FOR A SUCCESSFUL COMPOSING CAREER
OL – What is important for a young composer to make it?
RW – I think that a good education is fundamental – you need to be exposed to good schools and good teachers. Well, you know, I was very fortunate after these early two years I had in the high school in Cleveland. My teacher at the time got me to talk to his former teacher who had written theoretical books and was also a very creative kind of person, and he was in the faculty at NYU. I showed him some of the songs I had written and he liked them, so I asked him if I should go to NYU. He said, ‘look, there is only one terrific place for a composer now, and that is the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.’ So I went there.
Howard Hanson was the one who had started that whole school, and it was tremendous. I’d never give up a year, a week in that school, because not only did I get the training with fine teachers - Howard Hanson, Bernard Rogers - but it was a wonderful school to develop as a human being, and it was an interesting time too, there was a lot of ferment of various kinds. That was terrific.
Then I was up at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire one summer for three weeks, I met a whole bunch of writers, painters, and so forth, many of whom came from New York; this was between my third and fourth year at Eastman, so I decided I should get to New York. Juilliard didn’t have any tuition, it was a small, carefully chosen student body, so, I decided to go there because they had teachers that I respected, so I went there, that proved to be the stepping off time for everything else I did from then on.
So I often said that I couldn’t have been more fortunate in those things in my life, in choosing places. Because even my years in the army, when I wrote this music for this army musical, at that time neither Juilliard nor Eastman taught anything about jazz; well I like jazz, I had a real education because I had a terrific swing band that I could write for and I was kicking at the front of the band; I had a sort of Guy Lombardo band and a very good sextet, we couldn’t have been any better, we could play all the arrangements; that was my education in jazz. It never got me to a place where I would have wanted to make a career out of it at all, but it was something I could do if I needed to, and a couple of things in some of my works played that off.
THE UPCOMING PRODUCTION OF THE CRUCIBLE BY PIEDMONT OPERA
OL – Do you look forward to the new production of The Crucible that is coming up in Winston-Salem?
RW – Oh yes, because having been the chancellor at the school for seven years, and knowing so many people there… They are really doing this production of the opera and they are dedicating this whole thing to me. That opera is now 50 years old, I can’t believe it [laughs], and they are really pulling out all the stops on it. And that opera company is so good, because they have all these people from the School of the Arts helping out with the production aspects; their shows are terrific.
OL – I met the young dramatic soprano who will be singing Abigail, she is great.
RW – Yes, it’s good to have a young dramatic soprano, because when they get older, they weigh 300 pounds. [laughs]. So I’m really looking forward to this production, they are having a gala, and a dinner for me, and I’ll be talking to the young singers and helping them out… I hope I don’t scare them too much [laughs]. And it is interesting that the same day that it is being done there, it’s being done at Peabody. [OL’s note: the Music Institute at Johns Hopkins University]
OL – Yeah, I saw that.
RW – You know, Juilliard at the time I went there didn’t have doctorates, you just did the job and that was it, but the first doctorate that I got, which was not one that I worked for [laughs] was from Peabody. So it’s sort of interesting to go back there. And also the person who directs it is the person who did the libretto for Roman Fever, Roger Brunyate. So I feel kind of indebted there. They had me in one of these modern things, where they project your image and voice to the singers there, a teleconference, so I gave my advice to them as well.
MR. WARD AND REGIONAL OPERA COMPANIES - VIABILITY, STRUGGLES
OL – How do you think opera in regional opera companies is doing?
RW – You can make good opera in small companies, anywhere really. I remember when I came here to Duke, the Semans had gone to Italy where they had seen street opera, and they thought it was terrific, could we have street opera here? They made this large grant to the Arts Council, and asked if they could get some street opera started. Well they had wonderful people who also wanted that but they had never been that much involved with the structure of an opera house and so forth. I moved to town and they came to me and they said, ‘look, could you give us a plan to start this?’ Because they had started with the money, I’ll tell you, that was a big incentive to start this [laughs], you didn’t have to go out and raise money right away, so I decided that it was to be in the summer, outdoors, and I decided a great opera to start would be Cavalleria Rusticana, because it all takes place outside a church, and there is no building or scenery involved, we had to have a place where the orchestra could be, and then the audience and so forth.
So they came to me, and said did I have any thoughts about this? I said ‘well, give me a week, let me think about it.’ So I made this decision in my mind of what we should start with, because that took care of a lot of things right off, so I got in my car one Saturday and drove around past every church I could find in Durham; I didn’t find any that had all of the necessary things. I was on my way back home, we lived about five minutes from here; remember, they made the little shopping center there from two tobacco warehouses [OL’s note: Brightleaf Square, in Durham], I was passing them, and thought, ‘gee what is that like inside,’ I went in and it had everything we needed, we could seat 600, there was a raised area, we could make the stage there, there was even an actual tree growing out of it, there was space there where we could dress and so forth, and there was a space for the orchestra upfront. So I thought, ‘boy, this is good.’ And I think it must have been a night when they were cutting tobacco. You know the smell of when they are cutting tobacco, it’s a wonderful smell, very rich and beautiful.
Suddenly I thought, ‘My God, what a place for Carmen!’ So I thought about it for a minute… and it happened that Carmen was the first opera I ever saw… the Metropolitan used to come to Cleveland and do a couple of weeks, and I remember when I was in high school I went to Carmen, it was a huge auditorium, people on stage were about that high [makes a gesture with index and thumb] anyhow, I heard all those marvelous tunes in that opera… But I had never studied that score, to know the whole opera. But I immediately thought that that was what we should do.
So I came back and I called the people and the Semans who made this grant, I think $40,000 to get it started, and so it just took off. Everyone thought, ‘gee, that’s marvelous.’ I got the chorus from the Gilbert and Sullivan group we have here, they were delighted to do this; I got the orchestra from the Durham Symphony here, and there were a couple of players that I knew wouldn’t be up to it, I had conducted them a couple of times, and I said ‘look, I’ll talk to them,’ I did and they understood it very well, so I got the orchestra all settled, and then I believed that we should cast it as much as possible with students right here because then we wouldn’t have to pay for their living and all sorts of other expenses, because $40,000 just doesn’t go very far in opera.[laughs]
So anyhow, it took off, and suddenly I was going to be conducting Carmen! I had never conducted any opera but The Crucible at that point… and I had never studied the whole score of Carmen. Well it’s a tough opera with that last act, and there I was; so, all right, I knew how to study a score so I studied the score, got it together, and it was a tremendous success, it was a wonderful ambience there, we even had a train come by and make sounds… hood hood hood during it, so it had great realism, and I only had to get two cast members from the outside.
I met this wonderful black singer from the Metropolitan I had come to know because she’d done the role of the black girl in The Crucible, and she was wonderful, and I said, ‘it’s terrible that you’re not assigned the roles that you should sing,’ and she said yes, but she was very philosophical about it. But I suddenly thought of her, and then a tenor that I came to know in New York who had all that brilliant young tenor thing. I was able to have them come down here, and it turned out that the one who did Carmen had gone to the black school here [OL’s note: North Carolina Central University, a historically black college in Durham], she lived just outside here, so suddenly she was coming back home to sing, it was just amazing how it turned out.
OL – In what year was that?
RW – First year I moved here to Durham and went to Duke, around the end of the 70’s. The Semans gave this grant to the Art Council, and the head of the Art Council was a Duke graduate who played the oboe and the English horn, a wonderfully organized young man. The Arts Council had not been renovated, there was no air conditioning in it, and we were rehearsing, we were all dripping, but we were all having a wonderful time.
We went on for ten years, a different opera every year, never had a deficit until the tenth year, when we had ten shows scheduled but could only do five of them because of the weather, that year we ran a bit of a deficit. But then I was no longer involved, and they didn’t have a place, the thing died out. It became a mini opera company, it was our opera company here, the Triangle Opera. We had a lot of help from Duke, they could build our sets and they were very good to us, but when we couldn’t use that place anymore and I had left, I’m afraid they didn’t have anyone to continue. But see, we were able to do good opera with almost nothing. So yes, regional opera companies can do good work if they are well managed.
OL – What do you think of the current regional opera company here, the NC Opera?
RW – I’ve been on the board as a matter of fact… if you want another story I can tell you… [laughs]. When I was on the board there they were getting a new general director who was a singer, they had too grandiose ideas, they had deficits, and the board was made of business people, their main concern was to get someone on the board who could give them $5,000 a year, this sort of thing. They didn’t know anything about music, they had gone to the opera and loved it, that sort of thing, but so far as having any knowledge of it… and these were all business people. They kept running these deficits, and this general director had family wealth and kept it going because he wanted to run the place. But unfortunately he didn’t work very well with the other people.
So, the board was getting troubled because they were getting all these deficits all the time, and I remember when the new man who is there now came in from another opera company, and he was good, but I went to this board meeting once, and I sat there listening, and every one of these business men would get up and I knew something about running a business because I ran this publishing company for ten years, and so at the end I said, ‘look I’m surprised as I sat here, because I suspect I may have more knowledge about opera companies than anyone on this room, but,’ I said, ‘I haven’t heard anyone who really spoke with a knowledge about the repertoire, the singing, the production end of it, it’s always about getting money to cover deficits,’ I said ‘I’m sure you people with your companies if you just run deficits for a while you are out.’ [laughs]
I said, ‘there are certain things you can do, for instance, you know, you don’t need to prepare a whole opera production and then do it two or three times. You can tour it to other cities, these close by here, and there are other things you can do that saves money every way.’ But they had this thing that you needed to be a contributor, to pay so much money to be on the board, well in principle I didn’t like that, but I could have done it, but I wasn’t one who was going to put on $5,000 for those who were fixated on having some soprano that they had heard – ‘oh, we should have her’ – it was just not being managed well, then I sort of got away from it.
Although this was before they changed everything a couple of years ago, when they merged the two companies. I do like the person who is there now running it, Eric Mitchko. But the last opera of their series, they have to do it semi-staged to save money because they were about to run a deficit; to me you either do opera or you don’t do opera; if you just want to have people standing there singing the music, the music is still great, but that’s not the opera.
Anyhow, they still call me to come to the meetings, but these days I’m not able to travel so easily, so, I don’t know. At one point they had The Crucible as one of their planned ones, but they decided that they had to just have blockbusters, which of course is Carmen, and those handful of operas that sell out… they didn’t even sell out Carmen. We need a school for opera directors. Opera Carolina on the other hand [OL's note: the Charlotte, NC company], they took a chance on premiering my Abelard and Heloise, and they planned for losing $15,000 dollars on it but decided to do it anyway, it turned out that they sold out and ended up making $20,000. So, it can be done. I wish they’d do one of mine here in Raleigh.
OL – Do you go to Met Live in HD?
RW – Yes I do! I’ve been to many of those. I think their equipment is terrific. Because you know, it’s hard on the singers to sing above a 110-instrument orchestra, so I’m not against amplification for this kind of broadcast, you get to hear a great sound! Maybe the regional companies should do this kind of thing as well. You know, we have the Film School at the School of the Arts, they’d be able to help. These new technologies, when it’s done right, it’s wonderful, and the Met does it right.
OL – Thank you, sir. I had a wonderful time talking with you.
RW – I had a good time too. We should get together again!
[Mr. Ward then kindly autographed Almaviva's copy of the The Crucible CD, writing on its insert "To [Almaviva's real name] who is helping opera and music so valiantly" - a cherished souvenir!]