An Opera Double Bill
Directed by Nicholas Muni
The Turn of the Screw*
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after a story by Henry James
*In an abridged version by permission of The Britten Estate
James Bagwell, conductor
Nicholas Muni, stage director and production designer
A young Governess accepts the job of caring for two young orphans on the condition that she will not, no matter what might occur, contact the employer, who is the uncle of the two children. When the Governess decides that two malevolent ghosts are trying to possess the children—and that the children are willing accomplices—she begins a campaign to force the children to confess, and thereby hopes to free them from the grip of evil.
Note on the Abridged Version
In seeking a companion piece to Payne Hollow, the notion to program Britten’s The Turn of the Screw seemed a natural choice, as both are ghost stories, albeit with very different outcomes. In order to create a balanced and concise evening of opera and to serve the needs of our students, the Britten Estate has graciously given The Bard College Conservatory of Music permission to present an abridged version for exclusive use in this production. As you may be aware, the musical structure of The Turn of the Screw is a Theme and Variations, of which nearly all of the latter are musical interludes. In re-structuring the piece from a two-act opera into a one-act opera, and because our physical production does not involve the changes of scenery for which the Variations originally served a secondary function, we have made cuts in the some of the Variations (II, III, IV, V, VIII, IX, X, and XV) as well as some minor cuts within a few of the scenes themselves. Although all the omitted segments are a very important part of the work’s original two-act structure, great care was taken to ensure the musical/dramatic integrity of this abridged, one-act version.
Notes on the Production
This brilliant opera is both a complete joy and a supreme challenge to direct. It is endlessly fascinating and mixes intense theatricality with beautiful, potent music.
The main challenge is to preserve the highly charged ambiguity for which the Henry James novella is justly famous—to hint strongly enough in various directions without declaring any particular viewpoint. In short, how does a production provide a sense of “crystal-clear ambiguity”?
There are certainly enough questions begging for answers: Are the ghosts real or the product of the Governess’s imagination? Do the children ever see or communicate with the ghosts? When Quint and Jessel were alive, what actually happened between them? How did Miss Jessel die? Was it suicide or homicide? What was the exact nature of the relationship between Miles and Peter Quint—and was it a sexual one? What causes the death of Miles? Which character “turns the screw” in this piece?
A more basic but elusive question is: who is the true antagonist? The obvious answer may seem to be the two ghosts. But James never settles for the obvious. Could the real antagonist be the guardian of the children, their own Uncle? Though his character is only referred to in both the novella and the opera, the Uncle exerts a dominating influence in his absence, almost like a ghost himself. He is not evil or abusive. In fact, in the novella, he is first described as “kind.” His crime is that he is neglectful of the children. He wants nothing to do with them. And it is this neglect, in combination with his wealth and decadent lifestyle, which leaves the children vulnerable to abuse and corruption. This idea is conveyed through a brilliantly simple dramaturgical stroke: he agrees to hire the Governess on the sole condition that she does not contact him for any reason whatsoever, but deals with whatever problem may arise on her own.
A final point the authors force us to consider is whether it is the “untried and innocent” Governess who, despite her loving intentions, “turns the screw” through her obsessive pursuit of obtaining a confession from the children, ultimately destroying them. Is James perhaps suggesting that unconditional love, in and of itself, is sometimes not adequate in the quest to heal deep trauma in children?
Then again, it could all be just a good ghost story.
Hierarchy of the servant staff in Victorian England
It is important to understand the hierarchy of the servant staff in Victorian England to fully appreciate the compartmentalized structure of an upper-class estate.
|Lady's Maid||Valet |
|Cooks||The Grooms||The Footmen|
|Kitchen Maids||Scullery Maids||Dairy Maids|
|Nannies & Nursery Maids|
|The Goberness |
The Housekeeper: It is interesting to note that the Bly Estate has no Head Butler, which would have been extremely unusual. Also unusual was the Master’s choice to leave his Valet in charge of the house instead of travelling with him. It is telling that it is Mrs. Grose, elderly and operating far outside her responsibilities as well as her abilities, who is in charge of the house at the start of the opera. As the senior female servant, she would normally supervise the hiring and firing of the female staff, look after the household accounts, purchase supplies, and cure, bottle, and preserve food. Referred to as “Mrs.” whether married or not, she would have earned about $300 a year.
The Governess: Oddly, the bottom of the power structure, she taught children until the boys left for boarding school; the girls remained under her tutelage. Although a Governess would have the demeanor and deportment of a lady, usually educated, cultured, properly mannered, and well-bred as well as young and fresh faced, they were treated as servants. Because of this, they were often very lonely. Their ladylike deportment, youth and, frequently, good looks, often created romances in the family.
It has been suggested that the use of Latin in this piece functions as a mechanism to imply the corruption of the children, especially in terms of the possible exposure to inappropriate levels of sexual awareness in both of the children and even of homosexuality in the case of the young boy. In the lesson scene, Miles recites from memory a list of masculine nouns, many of which have double meanings or slang meanings, referring either to private parts of the human anatomy, images of death, or to images of arousal or orgasm. Below is a list of Latin words that Miles has memorized in a mnemonic:
|Latin||Literal meaning||Slang or implied meaning|
|caulis||the stalk of a plant||(phallic symbol)|
|collis||a hill or mound||(suggestive of female genitals)|
|fascis||a bundle of sticks||(phallic symbol)|
|crinis||hair||(suggestive of pubic hair)|
|follis||a pair of bellows||(slang for scrotum)|
|panis||loaf of bread||(phallic symbol)|
|postis||a post||(phallic symbol)|
|mensis||month||(female menstrual cycle|
|torris||a firebrand||(inflamed penis)|
|unguis||nail of a finger or toe|
|canalis||a groove or channel||(slang for vagina)|
|vectisa||strong pole||(slang for erect penis)|
|vermis||worm||(slang for penis)|
|pulvis||dust||(ashes of the dead)|
|cucumis||a cucumber||(phallic symbol)|
|lapis||large stone||(a tombstone)|
|casses||hunting net||(spider’s web)|
|glis||to swell up, burst out||(slang for erection and orgasm)|
Sexuality: James, Britten, Quint
Much has been made of the notion that The Turn of the Screw is a coded attack on homophobia. It should indeed be noted that James wrote the novella around the time of the trials and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, and that during the period Britten wrote the operatic version, homosexuals were much persecuted in England. Given those facts, there may be some merit to that theory and in viewing the Governess as representing the homophobic element in society. On the other hand, the text implies with equal force that Quint was bisexual, that he was “free with everyone. He was free with her too, the lovely Miss Jessel, and she a lady so far above him.” It may then be that Peter Quint represents a much more anarchic force, more of a libertine who respects no class or gender bounds. In any case, it is well known that Britten was a homosexual and that James was very likely of that preference as well.
Children: James, Britten, Miles
Another focus that James and Britten shared in their artistic output is that of children, especially in terms of exploring the loss of innocence and the psychologically complex process of coming of age and relationships with older adults. James was also very well versed in child psychology, influenced by his older brother William, a well-respected psychologist of the day, and by the contemporary work of Freud and Jung. In this light, it is interesting to explore The Turn of the Screw in terms of trauma, repression, and catharsis involving the children, especially in connection to the role of the Governess. It is her unwavering pursuit in trying to “save” the children that serves as a double-edged sword—and ultimately results in their demise. Had she been a more mature individual or someone with therapeutic training, she might not have pushed them so hard. But perhaps that is another of James’s points: that with all the best intentions, it is possible to abuse and even destroy children through ignorance or lack of skill when working in the treacherous waters of the psyche.
Homosexuality and the Law in England
Sodomy (or buggery as it was called at the time) first became a civil offense, punishable by death, in 1533, when Henry VIII issued a formal decree on the subject, The Statute of 1533. Except for a short period in the 1500s, sodomy remained a capital offense in England until 1828. Throughout the remainder of the 1800s the act of sodomy was a felony punishable by imprisonment.
In the 1600s and into the 1700s, the term "sodomite" applied to a practitioner of any form of nonreproductive sex, whether between members of the same sex or not. Despite the threat of the death penalty, sexual acts between adult males and adolescent males and females were commonplace and—during the 1600s—generally socially accepted. In about 1700, gender lines and cultural expectations regarding sexual preferences became more rigid.
In the 1880s "the social purity movement"—a loose-knit coalition of early feminists and social conservatives—set as its goal the containing of male lust in all its many forms, from adultery to prostitution to pornography. In 1885, the social purity movement succeeded in pushing through a major revision of England's laws regulating sexual behavior. Prior to 1885, indecent assaults on persons over the age of 13 were not punishable. But the new law made any indecent assault punishable by proposing an amendment that would make "gross indecencies"—regardless of the age of the victim—punishable as a misdemeanor. The vague words of this law were later interpreted more broadly than the law’s originally intended purpose, and in 1895, a London jury found Oscar Wilde guilty of violating Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. For his crime, Wilde spent two years in prison.
Private consensual acts between adults, including same-sex sodomy, were decriminalized in England in 1967.
Nicholas Muni, director
Immediate upcoming projects: Florencia en el Amazonas at Boston University Opera Institute and Don Giovanni at Opera Company of Philadelphia
James Bagwell, conductor, The Turn of the Screw
Carl Bettendorf, conductor, Payne Hollow
Increasingly active as a conductor, Mr. Bettendorf has worked with ensembles in New York (Wet Ink, counter)induction, Talea Ensemble) and abroad (piano possibile in Munich, Ostravská banda in the Czech Republic) and has appeared with the Opéra national de Montpellier in France, where he conducted the French premiere of Elliott Carter’s opera, What Next? In addition, he is director of the Manhattanville College Community Orchestra in Purchase, New York and has served as assistant conductor for the Columbia University and American Composers orchestras, Miller Theatre, and the Munich Biennale. Bettendorf has recorded for Albany, Carrier and Hat Hut Records, ArtVoice, Cybele, and Tzadik. His music was broadcast on German, Swiss, Canadian, U.S., and Australian radio.
Shawn Jaeger, composer, Payne Hollow
Angela Carducci, Prologue in The Turn of the Screw
Elizabeth Cohen, Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw
Vincent Festa, Quint in The Turn of the Screw
Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Miles in The Turn of the Screw
Jeremy Hirsch, Harlan in Payne Hollow
Michael Hofman, Harlan in Payne Hollow
Helen Huang, Young Drifter in Payne Hollow and Flora in The Turn of the Screw
Sara LeMesh, Anna in Payne Hollow
Kameryn Lueng '13, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw
Katherine Maysek, Mrs. Gorse in in The Turn of the Screw
Devony Smith, Anna in Payne Hollow
Laura Soto-Bayomi, Governess in The Turn of the Screw
Sarah Tuttle, Governess in in The Turn of the Screw
Bard Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program and Bard College Conservatory of Music present
An Opera Double Bill
Directed by Nicholas Muni
March 14 at 7 pm
March 16 at 2 pm
Tickets: $15, $25, $35, and $100*
*The $100 ticket includes premium seating and an invitation to a special champagne reception with the artists on Sunday, March 16 ($75 tax deductible). Call the Box Office at 845-758-7900 for tickets.
Payne Hollow by Shawn Jaeger
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten
Conducted by James Bagwell
Featuring the singers of the Graduate Vocal Arts Program and the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra.
Running time for this performance is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.