The Oakland Opera Theater will present Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw this weekend as the inaugural opera in their new theater space at 630 Third St. Because of the company’s commitment to producing opera that is meaningful to the community, director Tom Dean, in concert with production manager Mia Steadman, has reworked the setting of this ghost story set in Victorian England by placing the opera’s action on a remote plantation in Louisiana.
Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper made substantial changes to the original Henry James’ novella, which is atmospheric, eerie, and full of unresolved innuendo. It’s uncertain in James whether or not the narrator/governess is truly seeing ghosts or if those ghosts are determined to take over the lives of the children as she imagines. In the opera the ghosts exist as real characters, the governess may be a hysteric but what she sees and imagines are true.
Further, the ghosts are surely evil: their intent is to corrupt the children’s innocence. Peter Quint, the dead valet, sings “I seek a friend—/Obedient to follow where I lead, / Slick as a juggler’s mate to catch my thought, / Proud, curious, agile, he shall feed / My mounting power.” The former governess/ghost is just as unsavory, and the two sing a repeating refrain from Yeats’ Second Coming: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
As if to emphasize this theme of innocence under threat, Piper has the children sing nursery rhymes, which bear a suggestion of violence or sexuality. The text of the focal song of Miles’ struggle with sexual abjection is taken from schoolboys’ rhyming grammatical rules of Latin, which according to librettist Piper were from a Latin primer that belonged to her aunt: “Malo … I would rather be/ Malo … in an apple tree / Malo … than a naughty boy / Malo … in adversity.” The children’s songs like much of the opera’s music contrasts the charming and ethereal against the dark and obsessive.
In return, the ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel speak to the children in mythic and fairy tale metaphors: “The little mermaid weeping on the sill / Gerda and Psyche seeking their loves again.” Their melodies rising in lingering runs and ornamentation.
Britten’s opera is tightly structured in a prologue and 16 scenes that are separated by a theme and 15 short musical variations that sketch out the meaning of the scenes through a musical motif that uses the 12 notes of the chromatic scale ascending and descending. The celestina describes the motif linked to Peter Quint, which falls on the listener’s ear like fairy dust.
Oakland Opera’s choice to relocate this Victorian haunting was made not only with the desire to Americanize the opera but also because of Louisiana’s rich European history as well as the Southern plantation’s suggestive setting—both spooky and beautiful. Within the company’s new space, which has twice the square footage of the Oakland Metro, the company’s artistic team have built both plantation house and a swamp to replace the lake where the governess and Flora first see the apparition of Miss Jessel.
Only one major change in the libretto has been made to accommodate the setting: the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, the source of the opera’s kindness and stability, has been transformed to Mama Grose, an African American slave. The ghosts are represented by the aerial team The Starlings Trapese Duo.
Britten’s score calls for a 13-piece chamber orchestra of winds and strings, with harp, piano and celestina, and a full range of percussion instruments, from glockenspiel to timpani. Unable to find an orchestral reduction, musical director Deirdre McClure opted for the full orchestration, which was now possible given the larger space of the company’s new theater. The orchestration is very compact in the original, with the burden of dynamics placed in the percussion, and strings and woodwinds creating the haunting melodic atmosphere of the ghost story.
One of the major stumbling blocks to mounting the opera was finding children who could sing the roles of Flora and Miles. After two months of auditions, the role was double cast for two pairs of children: Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej, and Nick Kempen and Kelty Morash. All four children have sung the roles before; Nick and Kelty appearing in the 2007 Adler Fellows production at the Lincoln Theater in Napa.
Soprano Anja Strauss sings the governess and was chosen for her crystal clear and vibrant sound. Lori Willis sings Mama Grose. “Her rich silvery sound blends beautifully with Anja’s,” said Mia Steadman, who added that “this is the best cast we have ever had.”
Miss Jessel is sung by Marta Johansen, whose lyric soprano “sounds like water” in the role’s lower passages. Tenor Gerald Seminatore, whose engagements have included performances with the Glimmerglass and Santa Fe Opera, sings the complexly evocative role of Peter Quint, which was debuted by Peter Pears in the original 1954 production staged at La Fenice in Venice.
Photograph by Ralph Granich.
Kelty Morash in The Turn of the Screw.