A Friend of Operetta: An Interview with Robert Ward on the Premiere of His New Operetta, A Friend of Napoleon

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IN JULY, 2005 WE SAT DOWN FOR A CONVERSATION with composer Robert Ward, whose new operetta, A Friend of Napoleon, was premiered that summer at the Ohio Light Opera in Wooster, Ohio. Mr. Ward, best known for the Pulitzer Prize winning The Crucible, his opera based on the play by Arthur Miller, is the composer of eight operas, seven symphonies, and numerous songs, choral pieces, and chamber works. In addition to his career as a composer he served as the chancellor for the North Carolina School for the Arts (1967-1975) and a professor at Duke University (1978-1987).

A Friend of Napoleon (libretto by James [Doc] Stuart), is a lighthearted love story involving George Dufayel, a Parisian lawyer, and Nina Siebel, an American tourist. The couple, who meet in Paris, engage in a love-at-firstsight clandestine affair at the wax museum, Musée Pratoucy. Papa Chibou, the caretaker of the wax museum, watches the budding love from afar. George and Nina plan to elope, but Nina's meddling Aunt Alice locks her in her room, forbidding her to meet George. In the end, Papa Chibou and his only friend, the wax figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, help reunite the lovers.

Michael Hix (MH): Mr. Ward, your new operetta, A Friend of Napoleon, was commissioned by the Ohio Light Opera and premiered this summer to honor the late Dr. James Stuart, the company's founder and artistic director from 1979-1999. Can you tell us something about your collaboration with Dr. Stuart?

Robert Ward (RW): Well, the collaboration with Doc, as everyone called him here, was in some respects different than others I'd had. Before that, I had had four different collaborators, all with different backgrounds. One of them, Bernard Stambler, had his doctorate in American literature and in musicology and played the viola. As a boy he was also involved with the claque at the Metropolitan Opera, so he knew the repertoire and had heard all the great singers of that time. The next librettist I worked with, Jan Hartman, was a playwright with a wonderful feel for literature; unfortunately, he knew nothing technically about opera, so I had to educate him as a librettist. The next, Daniel Lang, was a talented New Yorker writer with a fine idea for the opera we wrote, but who had no knowledge of what went on in the professional musical world. The next was the head of the opera department at Peabody, Roger Brunyate, who was well educated musically, obviously, in opera particularly. With Jim [Stuart] it was similar. He had vast experience as a singer and director, as well as extensive involvement with the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. So he brought all of that to the table. By the time we worked together I also had a lot of experience with opera-writing the music, staging, and conducting-so together we had much experience which we could pool.

Margaret Jackson (MJ): How was the libretto for Friend of Napoleon chosen?

RW: I was at Ohio Light Opera in 1994 when they did Lady Kate, and that was the first time I met Jim. He knew my music already, though, because he had directed The Crucible at Kent State. As we came to know each other, I knew he had done the many translations and revisions required to bring numerous German and other European operettas to the United States, so when the idea came up of our collaborating he was very interested in it. He had never actually written a libretto, however, so the next thing we started looking for was a story. I remembered then that in 1976 we had discovered this short story of "A Friend of Napoleon." My wife, who has some literary background, and I even began to sketch a synopsis for it. But men I grew very busy, didn't have a librettist, and put it aside. My talks with Jim brought it to mind and I sent it off to him to look over. He thought it was wonderful right away, so that settled that! We then got to work. Jim retired from OLO and our idea involved premiering the show to celebrate his retirement, but I unfortunately had a month-long hospital stay that required us to do the show this summer rather than last. …