It all began with the book, Pontius Pilate, a Biographical Novel, by Paul L. Maier. I read this book sometime in the late 1970’s and conceived the idea of a chamber opera based on the wife of Pilate as she was presented in the book. The book has over 20 pages of footnotes as well as a four-page chapter entitled “Historical Note;” thus it is historically accurate. Although I am not using any of the dialogue in the book, my “take” in the opera on the character of Procula, Pilate’s wife, is grounded in her character as presented in the book. (Side note: I wanted to put “inspired by Pontius Pilate by Paul L. Maier” under the title of the opera so I wrote to him and he very graciously gave me permission.)
Over the next 25 or 30 years I would occasionally work on a synopsis of the opera, a possible stage setting, the number of characters, the size of the orchestra, possible use of a chorus, all without writing a note. Sometimes I would spend considerable time with the idea and then neglect it for months, even years, but I never totally forgot about it. (Two other books I used in research were The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Edersheim and The Temple also by Edersheim. I also studied a number of “Mad scenes” from operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor.
In 2008 I hit a milestone (I won’t say exactly what that milestone was) that caused me to get even more serious about my composing career. In the next year or two I realized if I was ever going to write my chamber opera, I had better begin. So in the spring of 2010 I programmed the “Nightmare” aria for a Women in Music – Columbus Member Musicale the following spring.
I chose that aria and scene because it would be the centerpiece of the opera. The only Biblical reference to Pilate’s wife is one verse in the gospel of Matthew (I am quoting from the Contemporary English Version known as the CEV), “While Pilate was judging the case, his wife sent him a message. It said, ‘Don’t have anything to do with this innocent man. I have had nightmares because of him.’” The scene and aria were performed March 13, 2011 with myself, soprano, as Procula, Jan Nelson, mezzo soprano as her Jewish maid, Deborah, and Laura Benson, piano. Here is the ending of that scene. (I had been studying some of Messiaen’s music and had become enamoured with diminished octaves which you hear a lot of in this section.) Also this scene calls for an off-stage spoken chorus. I enlisted a few people from my church choir to help me record the crowd scene. They don’t quite give the effect of a big crowd, but you can get an idea. Click on the play button below to listen to a sample.
Currently the work is only scored for vocals with piano accompaniment. However, I will eventually be scoring it for chamber orchestra: Single winds, trumpet, horn, harp, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine and a small group of strings.