Thursday, July 28, 2011

History Time: Salem witchcraft in the opera house

Posted by Amanda Stonely 

Photo from Contemporary American Composers by Rupert Hughes (1900)
Edgar Stillman Kelley (1857-1944) composer of "Puritania, or the Earl and the Maid of Salem"
Oh, Salem! Salem! Where are all your tears?
Oh, little town which I loved so long
Shall e’er your bitter heart grow sweet again?
Farewell, farewell...

~from the opera “A Witch of Salem”
by Charles Wakefield Cadman (first performed 1926)

The published introduction to the opera “A Witch of Salem” states that the Salem Witch Trials era was one of “delusion, hysteria, credulity, fear mixed with pretense.”  Cadman and librettist Nelle Richmond Eberhart are among those who realized that these features, offering spectacles of the supernatural, the trials, and executions, were perfect grist for the operatic mill, though all of them embellished the stories to varying degrees.

Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881–1946) was a highly regarded composer who had researched, collected and published Native American songs and consciously incorporated these stylistic elements in his own compositions.

The plot of “A Witch of Salem,” though set in 1692, is only very loosely tied to the actual events of that year. It revolves around the family of Nathaniel Willoughby. His ward Sheila has, in her mind, exaggerated a remembered kiss into the status of a relationship with Anthony Talbott–who is engaged to Willoughby’s daughter Claris. When Sheila’s love goes unrequited, she arranges to have teenaged girls accuse Claris of witchcraft.

As Claris is being led to the gallows, Sheila has an attack of remorse and trades her own life for that of the unjustly accused. (Though, truthfully, after reading the libretto, I wonder whether her character is simply depressed and commits suicide by bloodthirsty mob.)

Among the eye- and ear-catching elements of the opera: Madagascar pirates who arrive to attend the hanging, singing in French, and a scene featuring Sheila singing “a weird Irish Banshee song.” This last is followed by a wailing sound apparently made by the actual Banshee! One character, “Tibuda, an Indian servant” seems to be based on the historical Tituba, although that is where the resemblance ends.

Cadman’s compositions show the influence of his study of so-called “exotic musics.” His music, albeit finely crafted, expressive and interesting, has not stood the test of time.

“A Witch of Salem” premiered in Chicago in 1926 and, though reasonably successful, never became part of the standard repertoire and, as far as I can tell, has never been recorded.

In contrast, Robert Ward’s opera “The Crucible” has enjoyed much more sustained success. Written fifty years ago, it won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for music and has been performed frequently since then. There is at least one available recording.

The libretto was by Bernard Stambler, who based it on the well-known Arthur Miller play. Since this play is so familiar I will forgo retelling the plot here.

Perhaps the strangest Salem-witch-trial opera I’ve found is “Puritania or the Earl and the Maid of Salem” by Edgar Stillman Kelley, set to a libretto by C.M.S. McLellan. This comic opera imitates the style of Gilbert and Sullivan in both music and text.

Kelley was a contemporary of the aforementioned Cadman; he also composed in a style influenced by Native American and non-European music. The show opened in Boston in June 1892–almost exactly two hundred years after original Salem witch hysteria.

The convoluted plot revolves around the exploits of Vivian George Trevelyan, Earl of Barrenland, and Elizabeth, the “maid of Salem.” Elizabeth manages to get herself arrested repeatedly for witchcraft, each time by self-accusation.

  The Earl is an oddly belligerent character who sings:

“ cut a fellows head straight off is unrestricted joy,
and to nick a chap between the ribs is bliss without alloy.”

Act One finds us on the Salem seashore. Elizabeth is convicted by the Witch Finder General and is about to be executed when the Earl, arriving from England, fortuitously falls in love with her. They sail back to England to get a pardon from Charles II.

Act Two begins in a chamber below the royal palace, where conspirators are setting gunpowder. When they’re done, the leader sits down on a keg of gunpowder and lights his pipe...

Act Two, Scene Two, takes place in the palace itself. While Elizabeth is being interrogated, she nervously draws a pentagram on the ground. Suddenly there is an explosion, and a man comes flying up through the floor. Everyone is convinced that Elizabeth is a witch until the man explains what happened and reveals that he is her father. (Yes, her father…) They all live happily ever after, somehow.

In a critique in 1904’s “The History of American Music” Louis Charles Elson praised the music of “Puritania.”  However, he found fault with the libretto: “A thinking auditor will always regret seeing so awful a subject used as a comic libretto. The tears of one century can never furnish the laughter of another. To one who reads history, the martyrdom of Giles Corey and Rebecca Nourse would forbid ever jesting about Salem witch-finders.”

His critique has a strangely modern ring to it.

Jim Dalton is a founding board member of the Salem History Society and is a professor of music theory and music education at The Boston Conservatory. He and his wife Maggi specialize in the research and performance of 19th century American music. Reach him at: For information on joining the Salem History Society, visit 

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