That reminded Arthur Miller of the Salem witch trials, prompting his acclaimed play "The Crucible" in 1952.
Nine years later, all of the intense issues raised in Miller's work found new expression in an opera by Robert Ward. His version of "The Crucible," which won a Pulitzer Prize, quickly became one of the most performed American operas.
Its advocates include Roger Brunyate, the artistic director of Peabody Opera Theatre who is retiring from the post after 32 years. He directs the company's first production of "The Crucible," which opens Wednesday.
"The opera is very close to the Miller text," Brunyate said, "but is also much more gut-wrenching. It enhances the play enormously, concentrating ruthlessly on the emotional clashes of the characters."
Ward's work played a role in the Northern Ireland-born Brunyate's own career. A few years after joining the Peabody faculty, he was ...
engaged to direct his first professional productions in the U.S. — “The Crucible,” for companies in the Chicago and Kansas City. He was recommended for those jobs by the composer.
Brunyate also went on to write the libretto for Ward's "Roman Fever," a 1995 opera based on an Edith Wharton story.
"Since this is my last production as artistic director, and since 'The Crucible' has never been done at Peabody," Brunyate said, "it seemed a not inappropriate way to acknowledge that debt to someone who got me started professionally in this country and with libretto writing."
"The Crucible" had its premiere at the New York City Opera.
Ward was "thrilled to write for major singers like Norman Treigle," Brunyate said, "and he wrote to the limits of what they could do. Most professionals, let alone students, would be challenged by that. The music is very demanding."
The pressure of the vocal lines is not the only test.
"The orchestra is rather large, which can be tough for young voices," said JoAnn Kulesza, music director of Peabody's opera department and conductor for "The Crucible."
Students in the cast received some coaching on the opera from Ward, now 94, via a video conference from Duke University, where he is professor emeritus.
"The opera is a product of American opera of the mid-century, when people were trying to find the American equivalent to Puccini and verismo," Brunyate said.
Although Baltimore opera-goers have not manifested much of an appetite for anything more contemporary than Puccini's "Turandot" from 1926, Kulesza expects "The Crucible" to be embraced by the public.
"The audience will find it easily accessible," she said. "There are tunes in it you can walk away singing."
People may also walk away thinking about the subtext of the opera, and the play that inspired it, even if we are long removed from witch trials or anti-communist witch hunts.
"You just need to ask about the Patriot Act," Brunyate said. "We're not entirely free from preemptive suspicions, where guilty-until-proven-innocent is something that keeps on creeping up. There are certainly new relevancies in an age of terrorism."
Although "The Crucible" marks the final main stage production for Brunyate at Peabody, he will remain a part-time faculty member.
"I'm not going to Florida and bask in the sun," he said. "I hate that, actually. I'm sure you'll see me again. If it works out that Peabody goes to the Lyric in the fall with 'Don Giovanni,' I will direct that."
Brunyate's influence has long been felt beyond the walls of the conservatory, in shows he has directed for other Baltimore organizations over the years, and in opera companies founded by several of his students after graduating (not all of those companies survived).
As for Peabody Opera Theatre, its continued growth has been demonstrated in such vibrant productions as Massenet's "Manon" last season on campus and the company's first foray into the Lyric with Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" last fall.
"Roger essentially built the company from the ground up," Kulesza said. "It wouldn't be anything like it is today without him."
PHOTO COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE