I was reminded a few days ago why I’m directing Britten’s opera The Turn of the
Screw. The whole cast was rehearsing in the sacristy of Merton College, immediately
adjacent to the Chapel, which is famous for its resonant and spacious acoustic.
First off, I was delighted to have the whole cast together: half are recent graduates,
one is a lecturer at Magdalen and Teddy Hall, and two are school children at two local
state schools. They’re all wonderful singers and actors, but a nightmare to schedule
Second, it was a pretty ambiguous place to rehearse. In a way, that’s apt: the whole
plot is based on Henry James’ novella, in which a narrator tells of his friend, reading out
a letter, written by a governess, about events that happened sixty years previously;
specifically events concerning two beautiful children, a remote country house, the
governess herself, and the ghosts of the previous governess and valet. It’s an odd and
ambiguous story, where you’re never sure what’s going on, and who’s doing what.
We’re performing in a church, the children are referred to as ‘angels’ and there’s a
scene set on a Sunday morning on the way to church. But on the other hand, there is
one part where the children sing in Latin, the church’s traditional language, “O
arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord.” As I say, ambiguous.
But in the opera, unlike the novel, Britten has the ghosts speak (or rather, sing). The
danger is that we lose some of this ambiguity in favour of explicit exposition and
interpretation. But Britten sidesteps this problem beautifully. In the first entrance of
Quint (the dead valet), he sings only the boy’s name, and from offstage: “Miles!
Miles!” It’s accompanied by the celeste, a strange, eerie instrument that sounds a bit
like a glockenspiel. The children are asleep at the time, and for rehearsal purposes
we’d put Guy (playing Quint) in the chapel, to get the right sense of space. And
suddenly, with the accompaniment fading out, the cast silent, and the children
pretending to sleep, with the way the chapel made the sound simultaneously clear and
booming, the genius of the opera – of all good opera – came rushing back; the way it
makes your spine shiver and your hair stand on end, just using music.
Of course opera has its reputation: it’s unintelligible (probably in a foreign language),
it’s badly acted, it’s expensive, it’s pointlessly highbrow. In the words of Malcolm
Tucker The Thick of It, “It’s just vowels! Subsidised foreign fucking vowels!” And when
opera’s like that, no, I don’t like it either. But we’ve done as much as we can to avoid
these problems. £5 tickets for students for one of the best English-language operas
there is – and I and the cast are working really hard to ensure every bar of this piece
works dramatically as well as musically. It’s short (two hours, top to bottom), and very,
very intense. So if you want to know what it’s like to hear a dead man sing to a sleeping
child, a song halfway between a lullaby and a seduction, then please join us for what
promises to be a thrilling classic brought to Oxford.
The Turn of the Screw will be at St. John the Evangelist Arts, Iffley Road, from Tuesday
to Thursday of 2nd Week.