FWO Archives: Benjamin Britten's 'Turn of the Screw' (2003-2004 Season)
In this spine-tingling gothic tale, a young governess travels to a remote English estate to care for two precocious young orphans. The lines between reality and the supernatural are blurred as she battles for their souls. Can she save the children from their ghostly haunts? Is the evil she perceives real or is she adding some haunts of her own? Based on the classic novel by Henry James, Turn of the Screw is disturbingly brilliant and the first work by Benjamin Britten to ever be produced by Fort Worth Opera.
Turn of the Screw
Once every few years, an artist participates in a project that is so unique that it has a profound effect not only on his or her professional life, but on their personal being as well. For me, The Turn of the Screw is such a project. The subject of Benjamin Britten's opera — which is derived from the novella of the same name by Henry James — is so disturbing and relevant to generation after generation that it gets deeply inside one, becoming an obsession. As the stage director as well as designer of a new production, my challenge is to be faithful to Henry James's original story about Victorian sexual repression and the loss of an entire generation's innocence to the technocracy of a rapidly industrializing society. I am also required to deliver the insights rendered by Benjamin Britten's and Myfanwy Piper's 1954 operatic vision of James' novella.
James had been commissioned to write a serial Christmas story for a literary magazine. The Christmas story took the shape of a narrative, related at an obscure country estate by a man who was entertaining guests for the weekend when a fierce Nor'easter blew in with snow in its wake. Trapped in the house for several days, the host recounted to his guests the story of a former governess whose first charges were precocious children, haunted by fragment of a window the memories, both sensorial and sensual, of their former governess and valet. Although no one but the governess sees the ghosts, the implied atrocities perpetrated on the children by the spirits when they were alive were scandalous to the burgeoning Edwardian society.
Britten and Piper take the story much further. The greatest departure from the novella is the direct contact between the ghosts and the children. There are also several scenes in the opera that were created solely for the theatre. In the opera, as in the novella, the governess arrives at Bly; a remote estate the English countryside, to educate Miles and Flora, niece and nephew of an absent guardian who is now responsible for their upbringing. In both works, and very strikingly in the opera, the governess discovers the ghosts of her predecessor and a valet, and throughout Act Il, she is at battle with the spirits. Most noticeably and frighteningly is the bloodthirsty first scene of Act Il in which the ghosts aggressively sing about the loss of innocence. This scene clearly draws the battle lines between the governess and the
ghosts for the souls of the two children.
In the opera, in addition to brilliant storytelling, we are privileged to experience what I feel is Britten's score. Commissioned to be a chamber piece for the Biennale Festival in Venice, Italv in 1954, its orchestration for 13 players is never self-indulgent; it is brilliantly expressive of the character and action. It never shouts, 'Listen to how beautiful I am! Aren't I clever?” Combined with the concise libretto, the score is an impressionistic weave of emotion and relationships. Britten use James’ title to establish the musical schema for the opera, heightening the tension with turns of a “musical screw,” which one can clearly hear as the story advances.
In keeping with the impressionistic feel of the work, as designer I chose to treat very little literally. Locations are suggested by several pieces of brightly colored furniture (a nod to the modernity of the piece). Occasionally we have a fragment of a window. Outdoor “nature” scenes (a Victorian speciality: nature meant sensorial input and, ultimately, sensual stirrings) are represented by softly lit pieces of china silk and other diaphanous materials. They are all touched or stroked. Ultimately, however, all nature is destroyed in the governess’s mind by the highly unnatural presence of the ghosts. Projects of British calography, one of the earliest forms of photography, are used throughout, particularly for the natural settings. The grainy quality of the pictures lends a non-realistic, eerie existence to life at Bly House. Like one’s memory, the “stage picture” is skewed.
The costumes, likewise particularly in the case of the governess, are meant to show the changes in stage of mind. As the governess firms in her decision to save the children, she achieves a certain purity of vision. Hence, she is finally dressed in a paler, clearer color as she envisions herself as a sort of avenging angel. The ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are clothed as at the moment when they were each discovered, dead: Quint from a fall on an icy road where he froze to death. The hapless Miss Jessel, I have determined, was pregnant by Quint (“She had to go, she couldn’t stay, not then…”), and drowned herself in the lake of the property, which is why that is both the first and last place of her manifestation to the governess and Flora. Her dress is muddied from the lake in which she drowned.
The Turn of the Screw is the type of brilliantly crafted, opera-theatre piece that keeps my colleagues and myself passionate about our profession. It inspires us to publicly share our most private feelings in order to make you, the audience, think and feel and stretch the boundaries of your imagination and experiences. It helps us to re-realize the true meaning of our calling. It is why the arts are, always have been, and always will be the most insightful chroniclers of our past, present and future.
Director and scenic designer
The Turn of the Screw
Turn of the Screw
There is no shortage of operas that evoke the supernatural to strike a chord of horror in the hearts of an audience. But few theatrical works of any type can match the sustained creepiness that characterizes Benjamin Britten's brilliantly gloomy chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw. Alfred Hitchcock at his most terrifying has nothing on this dark, complicated ghost story based on the 1898 novella by Henry James. And when James's 19 century Gothic prose is united with Britten's highly atmospheric 20-century music, it makes for an opera that is unlike any other work in the repertoire. It has palpable chill about it that immediately engages the audience.
THE SOURCE MATERIAL
Henry James (1843-1916) was born in New York but lived most of his life in Europe. England, a country he called "the capital of the human race," eventually became his home and he died there as a naturalized British citizen. His literary output, which he began amassing at age 21 after briefly attending Harvard Law School, included 20 novels, 12 stories and 12 plays.
The Turn of the Screw was written on a commission from the magazine Collier's Weekly, which had asked James for a Christmas piece. (The resulting work may seem more suited to Halloween, but it must be remembered that the story begins with a tale told at a Christmas party.) The story was serialized Collier’s from Feb. 5 to April 16, 1898. There are a number of reasons that this work has proven to be one of James’s most enduring masterpieces. The author creates such a vividly morbid picture of a sinister English manor and its inhabitants, both living and dead, that the feel of the story cleaves to the reader’s mind, perhaps even more tenaciously than its words. And wrapped within this menacing cocoon of literary imagery, which is built in James’s wordy and self-conscious style, is a tightly wound, excruciatingly suspenseful ghost story. A story that, strangely enough, James based partly on a shots story told to him the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But the real key to the enduring appeal of The Turn of the Screw is its ambiguity. Seldom has a story told its readers less and made them enjoy it more. Indeed, the most intriguing aspects of this dark tale are the things that James does not tell us. In the original, unlike in the opera, it is not clear, for example, who does and does not see the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessell. We are never told why young Miles is barred from returning to his school. The exact nature of the relationship between the ghosts and the children is only hinted at, among dozens of plot details that James made intentionally vague or misleading. Even the shocking ending raises more questions that it answers.
For reason, The Turn of the Screw has been dissected and analyzed by legions of literary critics, scholars and ordinary fans of ghost stories from every possible angle the day it was published to the present. For every word James wrote in Turn, there have been a million written about it. Much of the literary debate centers on the character of the governess, Does she truly see the ghosts or is she delusional? What are her feelings for her distant employer? What are her real motivations?
There has also been no end of discussion concerning the relationship between the ghosts and the children. James, through the character of Mrs. Grose, only tells us that the stable hand Quint was “free with” young Miles without offering further explanation. It is in this area that arise the so-called “Freudian readings" of this story that are particularly disturbing. By leaving so many parts of this canvas unpainted, James left the door open to an incredible number of possible approaches to the work — which is probably just want he meant to do. Although interviewed frequently about factual issues in Turn in the years after its publication, he consistently responded in a manner that only deepened the many mysteries contained within this mystery.
Like most of the great composers, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) demonstrated musical talent at a very early age. He began studying with Frank Bridge at age 12 and eventually went on to the Royal College of Music, where he excelled as a pianist. He got his first real break as composer in 1936 from, of all sources, the British Post Office. He found work in their documentary film unit, writing scores for films about the delivery of the mail.
The experience was probably of great benefit to the young composer, but it is also little wonder that in 1939 he sailed to America in search of better opportunities. He was joined on the trip bv tenor Peter Pears, who became Britten's partner in life and music from that point on. The three years he spent in Canada and America were not terribly productive for Britten, but he did debut his first opera, Paul Bunyan in New York in 1941. And he also had the chance to meet some of America's best composers, mostly notably Aaron Copland.
Although a confirmed pacifist, Britton returned to England in 1942 at the height of World War ll. He and Pears perforned extensively during this dark period, building reputations that would allow them to emerge as two of the most important figures in British music in the post-War years. A steady stream of commissions and successes through the 1950s and 1960s cemented Britten's status as the most significant British composer of the era. His body of work includes a wide range of instrumental works, such as his well-known Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, and vocal works, such as his operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. He died of a heart ailment in 1976.
The Turn of the Screw was the result of a commission for an opera for the English Opera Group to perform at a music festival in Venice. The idea of using the Henry James story as the source for the desired opera was raised not by Britten, but rather by his librettist Myfanwy Piper. The commission was for a "chamber opera” — a work that would be inexpensive to produce and easy to travel.
- Dr. Punch Shaw© 2003
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He teaches courses at TCU, co-hosts a monthly lecture/discussion group on classical music at Barnes & Noble and frequently contributes reviews and features to various publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
CAST AND CREATIVE
Turn of the Screw
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper After the story by Henry James
Sung in English
Friday, November 7 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, November 9 at 2:00 pm
Tuesday, November 11 at 7:30 pm
Bass Performance Hall
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
Prologue Carl Halvorson
The Governess Janice Hall
Miles Christopher Penning
Flora Sarah Tannehill
Mrs. Gross, the housekeeper Joyce Castle
Peter Quint, a former man-servant Carl Halvorson
Miss Jessel, a former governess Jennifer Kethley
Conductor Christopher Larkin
Director Ken Cazan
Scenery Designed by Ken Cazan
Scenic Designs realized by Terry Harper
Costumes Designed by Steven W. Bryant
Costumes Constructed by Therese J. Tresco
Lighting Designed by Norman Coates
Wigs and Make-up Designed by Steven W. Bryant
Wig and Make-up Artist Cookie Jordon
State Manager Kate Williams
Principal Accompanist Mark Metcalf
All photos by Ellen Appel