Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Praise for The Turn of the Screw

Elizabeth Caballero (The Governess) and Soraya Mafi (Flora). Jacob Lucas photo

"Plan on being exhilaratingly chilled and disoriented."

"Benjamin Britten’s music is unfailingly delicious, and Seattle Opera’s never utilized more potent scenic effects: two reasons to go see The Turn of the Screw before it closes Saturday."

Seen and Heard International:
"One other ‘character’ deserves mention. Britten’s orchestra is a small but mighty 13 players. His evocative motifs and manipulation of a primary theme, which he takes through 12 variations, are a backbone for the overall tone. The composer uses every instrument of the ensemble, from bass to celesta, to create a haunting musical atmosphere."

The Seattle Times:
"But for those who can’t get enough of gothic horror at this time of year, it could make a welcome addition to the usual haunted-house horror-movie Halloween fare."

“'Turn of the Screw' asks deep questions, many ultimately unanswered: What is real, and what is perception? When do we disobey orders if we think they’re wrong? And what makes a child “go bad,” if there’s even really such a thing? And why have so many people died on that country estate?"

"On opening night, Rafi Bellamy Plaice’s angelic choirboy treble made all the more stark the contrast with the wickedness enveloping him."

Ben Bliss as Peter Quint and Marcy Stonikas as Miss Jessel. Jacob Lucas photo
"One of the most effective things about Seattle Opera’s production is the set, a mix of traditional staging elements and digital projection. Video projection can make or break an atmosphere, and in this case it makes it, turning the mansion into a haunted house full of staring portraits and foreboding hallways. The shifts in perception here are real, as the set reflects the alternating clarity and confusion in the governess’ mind."

"It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to play Peter Quint than Ben Bliss, whose presence lends a sense of menace about to pounce. As one target of his abuse, Miss Jessel (Marcy Stonikas) displays a different kind of malice — that of a miserable creature who wants someone to suffer along with her."
"It’s one of the most memorable productions the opera has done, in that every detail is equally strong, equally riveting, the story gripping."

Forrest Wu (Miles). Jacob Lucas photo
"Stage director Peter Kazaras has masterminded a brilliant conception and production."

"The projected scenery, designed by Adam Larsen and enhanced by Connie Yun’s lighting, sets the mood as well as the setting, starting with the governess’ journey to the house. The images—train and station, swaying trees, the house itself—are all intentionally a little dreamlike, a little fuzzy around the edges."

"A fine young actor, Forrest Wu sang Miles Sunday afternoon with sureness and aplomb, his voice ringing true on every note, absolutely clear and carrying through McCaw Hall without difficulty."

"(Soraya Mafi) moved and looked every bit about age 10, and was chilling in her own right as she showed Flora’s feelings through her big rag doll. Are they her feelings? Or what Miss Jessel is wanting her to think?"

Soraya Mafi (Flora), Rafi Bellamy Plaice (Miles) and Elizabeth Caballero (The Governess). Jacob Lucas photo

"Britten’s superbly designed score for a small orchestra of 13 musicians has its own eeriness adding to the atmosphere and supporting the singers. It was superbly played by Seattle Symphony musicians and conducted in his Seattle Opera debut by Constantin Trinks."

The Seattle Gay News:

Saturday night review:
"October, with its long, spooky path into Halloween, is the perfect moment to see The Turn of the Screw."

"Henry James' psychological thriller has translated perfectly to the operatic medium (pun intended)."

"No, it's not your fevered imagination that reads sex into the title - it's actually, really there. And the sexual anxiety that throbs through this opera is made all the more scary because children may be involved - though we're not sure - it could all be in the Governess' fevered imagination."

"Opening Night audiences heard the wonderful Rafi Bellamy Plaice ... His voice is amazingly mature and consistent through all registers - and how a young teenager can project into an opera house is a mystery to me. He handled the very sensitive role of Miles with a perfect combination of innocence as an actor and sophistication as a singer ... I'm sure I join everyone who loves treble voices in hoping that this marvelous singer, when he comes through puberty, will possess a voice as compelling in his adulthood as it is in his youth."

Soraya Mafi (Flora) and Rafi Bellamy Plaice (Miles). Jacob Lucas photo
"My favorite ghost was performed by Ben Bliss, who was both the narrator - the neglectful Lord who tells the young Governess never to disturb him with letters - and the ghost of the evil Peter Quint. His role is essential to make the audience understand why the Governess is frozen in her resolve to take action that might save the children. Bliss is as scary as a ghost as he is devastatingly handsome and mesmerizing as the narrator."

"Adding to the Halloween quality of the evening is a setting made primarily of projections by Adam Larsen that melt and transform from the train station, to the train, the countryside, and finally the mansion where optimism collapses into terror."

"Constantin Trinks, from Germany, made his debut as a conductor for Seattle Opera, and we can only hope to see him again. He handled his small forces with all the dynamism and drama the complex music required, while guiding his young singers with a sure hand."

Sunday matinee review:
"Although The Turn of the Screw is a chamber opera, with a six-singer cast and a thirteen-musician orchestra, it succeeds brilliantly on the Seattle Opera mainstage."

Forrest Wu as Miles. Philip Newton photo
"Boy soprano Forrest Wu as Miles sang beautifully and acted with conviction; he made the audience feel the character's confusion and suffering. As the Governess, soprano Elizabeth Caballero gave a fearless, highly emotional performance. Tenor Benjamin Bliss, who played the ghost of the deceased valet Peter Quint, was equally impressive; his calling out to Miles in a quiet high voice made me shiver."

"...conductor Constantin Trinks led a flawless performance of Britten's gorgeous, eerie score. It was a special treat to see all 13 musicians, holding their instruments, come onstage during curtain calls." 

"Sets designed by Robert Dahlstrom for Seattle Opera's 2014 production of Don Giovanni were skillfully repurposed to become the haunted mansion, with many doors and moving parts. Projections designed by Adam Larsen and lighting designed by Connie Yun were marvelously effective and evocative. Deborah Trout's costumes perfectly placed the opera in mid-20th-century England."

Rafi Bellamy Plaice (Miles) and Ben Bliss (Peter Quint). Philip Newton photo
Creatively Clo:
"The set design is inventive and unusual."

"It’s deceptive and ambiguous, like the story it’s based on ... It may leave some viewers frustrated that all details are not fully explained, but I would argue there is palpable tension and dread due to this unresolved nature to the story."

"Elizabeth Caballero is fantastic as the governess, as is Soraya Mafi, who, despite being an adult, is utterly convincing in her role as a child."

Atmospheric, brooding, and mysterious, it’s unlike any opera I’ve seen before. If you’re uninterested in opera as an art form it may not convince you otherwise, but anybody unfamiliar and willing to give it a try, this production is a wonderful one to see. Plus, it’s the right time of year for some scares.It’s the music and the performers that are the draw here. Young Rafi Bellamy Plaice stands out with a beautiful voice as the young boy Miles. He handles the material exceptionally, a particular highlight being the first act song “Malo.” This role is double casted and Forrest Wu, takes on the role for three nights."

Elizabeth Caballero (The Governess) and Maria Zifchak (Mrs. Grose). Philip Newton photo
Social media:

On Instagram: 
"Really, really disturbing but also AMAZING." - @talktodavidjames

"I'm a fan of Britten and this did not disappoint." - @ladyhawker

"Spooky, orphan filled, haunted house, opera, adapted from the classic gothic novel: YES PLEASE!" - @miss.sarahjean

On Twitter:  
"...moody and atmospheric." - @spinsterofutica

"Perfect ghost story opera. Wonderfully disorienting set and music." - @wblackwood

Soraya Mafi (Flora). Philip Newton photo
On Facebook: 
"If you’re in Seattle go see this! Perfect thriller for the Halloween season!" - Rosemary D.

"Whoa, that was dark! Malevolent ghosts, weirdo servants, innuendo, possession, sexual repression, death and creepy kids singing creepy songs. I don't quite know what happened, and I think I need to clear my browser history. But I think you need to see this." - Vern H.

"So wonderfully creepy. Had me at the edge of my seat. It seemed like everybody in the audience was holding their breath during the last scene." - Ursula Stomsvik

"Great performance. Complex and terrifying in so many small and psychological ways. LOVED the lighting. Thanks, wonderful singers."- Kate W.

The Turn of the Screw plays now through Oct. 27
#SOTurnOfTheScrew

Elizabeth Caballero (The Governess) and Rafi Bellamy Plaice (Miles). Philip Newton photo

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Upcoming auditions for singers and dancers

Marketing photo for Seattle Opera's "Cinderella in Spain." Philip Newton photo
In early November, Seattle Opera is holding auditions for dancers and singers. Male and female dancers are needed for the spring mainstage production of Carmen, and singers of all voice types are needed for Cinderella en España, a touring bilingual children's opera. People of Color are encouraged to audition. More details below.

Dancer auditions:
Carmen 
By Georges Bizet
Choreographed by Seth Hoff

Seattle Opera is looking for four dancers (a combination of men and women that will be determined following the audition). Dancers should have a strong jazz, ballet, and/or musical theatre background, and bring a current headshot and resume. Positions are paid (AGMA contract).

The audition will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 5, 2018
Show begins rehearsing Apr. 8, 2019
Show dates: May 4, 5*, 8, 11, 12*, 15, 17, 18, 19*, 2019
* matinee performance
Daytime availability for rehearsals required

Please call 206-676-5812 or email dance@seattleopera.org for more info and to sign up.

Singer auditions:
Cinderella en España
A bilingual children's opera for grades K-6
Libretto by Kate Pogue 
Music by Mary Carol Warwick.

Seattle Opera is seeking energetic singers of all voice types for the 2018–19 School Opera Tour production. Inspired by global re-tellings of the rags-to-riches tale, Cinderella en España provides a lively, modern-day bilingual backdrop to a story about the beauty of kindness and the ugliness of mistreating others. Seattle Opera presents School Opera Tours to students in grades K-6 in schools and community venues throughout Washington. This 50-minute opera is presented in a fully staged and costumed production, and performed with five singers and piano. Performances end with a post-opera discussion to deepen the student’s engagement.

The auditions will be held from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. on November 5 & 7 2018 

The following roles will be cast:
Cinderella/Cenicienta (soprano) 
The Stepmother/La Madrastra and The Fairy Godmother/La Madrina (Mezzo Soprano) Stepsister/Margarita and Guillermo/The Town Crier (Tenor) 
Prince Paul/Prince Paulo (Baritone) 
Stepsister/Isabella and The King/El Rey (Bass)

Rehearsals: Music and staging rehearsals begin February 4-March 1, 2019 
Performances: The School Opera Tour performances are scheduled from March – May 2019. 
Exact dates to be determined. 

Artists must be 18 or older and have classical vocal training and stage performance experience. Travel to and/or housing in Seattle will not be covered. 

Please send a resume and headshot to auditions@seattleopera.org for more info and to sign up.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Miles Files

Rafi Bellamy Plaice of England and Forrest Wu, a Seattle native, alternate in the role of Miles in Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw. Philip Newton photo
By Samantha Newland

When a storyteller adds a plot twist to create tension, this can be referred to as a “turn of the screw.” In the case of tonight’s opera, the piece is already eerie by virtue of being a ghost story. But two ghosts? A turn of the screw. And they torment children? A turn of the screw. And the audience must witness an innocent boy embody this story? Tighter, and tighter the screw turns—eliciting our fears and anxieties; creating nightmares for us to contend with long after we leave the theater.

As Seattle Opera crafts this terrifying (and exhilarating!) tale on stage, it will be in a large part thanks to two 13-year-olds: Rafi Bellamy Plaice and Forrest Wu, boy sopranos who alternate as the haunted lad, Miles.

It’s rare to see leads this young in opera. Even the characters Hansel and Gretel are sung by adult singers, and the other child character in The Turn of the Screw, Miles’s sister Flora, is also typically sung by an adult—in the case of this production, soprano Soraya Mafi. Unlike in ballet or theater, in Seattle Opera's production opera singers in their 20s and 30s are still considered to be at the beginning of their careers. So it was unusual that composer Benjamin Britten created roles for significantly younger voices.

In many operas, such as Hansel and Gretel, children are portrayed by adult singers. Pictured: Sasha Cooke (Hansel), Peter Easterlin (The Witch) and Ashley Emerson (Gretel) in Seattle Opera's Hansel and Gretel, 2016. Philip Newton photo 
Born in Suffolk, England in 1913, Britten grew up immersed in Anglican culture with its rich tradition of youth choral groups. Inspired by the ethereal qualities of the adolescent voice, Britten's operas such as The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Little Sweep gave children opportunities to sing just as much as their adult co-stars. Today, it’s a tradition that continues, thanks to Britten and others who nurture up-and coming artists. Aren Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera’s Director of Artistic Administration and Planning, is one of those people. Der Hacopian played a crucial role in the former Young Artist Program, and continues to bolster the next generation of singers through mainstage casting. Der Hacopian describes casting a child as similar to casting an adult. “Can they be expressive? Can they sing in a 3,000-seat house? Can they take direction?” 

In other ways, it’s different. Children process things differently than adults, Der Hacopian says. “Their parents need to be considered. And, oh yeah—there’s also something called school.” Another challenge to casting Miles, or the Three Spirits in The Magic Flute, is that it can be challenging to find gifted young singers. Prior to Seattle Opera’s The Turn of the Screw, the company sent out an international casting call for Miles. Performers from near and far responded, and the two young men selected were Rafi Bellamy Plaice of England and Forrest Wu of Seattle. Wu, along with many of the performers cast as the Three Spirits, had previously participated in Seattle Opera’s youth programs, another channel the company uses to discover young singers. 

For Plaice, son of mezzo-soprano Marcia Bellamy, classical music is genetic. As a baby, he matched his mother’s pitch with coos and squeaks as she sang to him in his crib. Now as a young teen, he recently won the BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year and released a debut album, Refiner’s Fire. Not bad for someone who’s not even old enough to drive. While Seattle Opera was gearing up for its production of Porgy and Bess, Plaice traveled to the United States, where he performed Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival. 

Rafi Bellamy Plaice of England sings Miles in The Turn of the Screw
Despite the responsibility of a burgeoning international career, the singer finds time to be 13. “I enjoy Legos and swimming and history. I love Egyptology. I think I would like to be an Egyptologist when I grow up,” Plaice said during a FaceTime call while his black cat, Lancelot, sat in his lap. “And I’m definitely a cat person.” 

In contrast, Forrest Wu’s path to performing was unexpected. For one, the teen was extremely shy as a young child. His mom, Gloria Chen, remembers a preschool event where the kids were supposed to sing together. “Forrest was too afraid to even utter one note,” she says.

Somehow, the timid boy got involved with Northwest Boychoir in first grade, and his confidence grew. Since then, he’s performed at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony and recorded for the soundtrack of “Golem,” an upcoming PlayStation 4 video game. Ironically, it’s his mom who now gets nervous before his shows.

The Turn of the Screw
marks the mainstage role debuts for both young men. However, Wu is actually no stranger to the McCaw Hall stage. During Seattle Opera’s 2017 The Magic Flute, the singer got his first taste of performing in an opera through his younger sister, Stella. As a supernumerary, she played a non-singing role as one of Papageno’s little chicks. Watching his sister from backstage, Wu noticed that some of the opera singers were children not much older than himself. “I saw the Three Spirits and I was like ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ So then I auditioned to be a boy soldier in Aida, which was really fun because there were lots of other kids,” he said.

Forrest Wu of Seattle sings the role of Miles in The Turn of the Screw. Philip Newton photo

After Aida, Wu wasn’t looking for any big auditions. But then his family received an email about auditions for The Turn of the Screw. He tried out. Now, he’s doing something that usually only adults get to do—making a Seattle Opera debut. Miles is a big part in terms of stage time. But it also presents a significant challenge considering the opera’s disturbing themes. The plot and ending are intentionally ambiguous, so the audience has to imagine their own conclusion about the horrors that Miles and his sister experienced at the hands of their caretakers when they were alive.

“Miles is the primary battleground for the Governess verses the ghosts,” says Jonathan Dean, Seattle Opera Dramaturg. “He has a lot of center-stage moments, for example when he sings ‘Malo, malo' and you wonder, 'What happened to this child?'"

Peter Quint and Miles from the 1961 film The Innocents based on The Turn of the Screw. 

Both boys have found different ways of coping with Miles’s traumatic experiences. Plaice (who’s also sung the title role in Oliver) has connected with his character over their shared interest in Latin. And Wu looks at Miles through the lens of a fantasy connoisseur. “I find the storyline creepy and complex,” says Wu, an avid reader currently making his way through John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. “You have to know all the background information about the characters in order to really understand what’s going on and act the part. If you are just watching the opera, it could be hard to understand him. But with the background, it all gets pieced together.” In this production, Miles is the only role that’s double-cast, a necessary move for the young performers’ schedules, and a necessary precaution considering the inherent risk in their voices changing. “Puberty waits for no one, not even opera singers. Boy sopranos have a very limited number of years in which they can perform,” says Der Hacopian, the opera’s Director of Artistic Administration and Planning. “Once they near puberty, it’s dangerous. At the same time, this also happens to be when their voices sound the best.” 

The “danger” of imminent voice-change has interrupted previous The Turn of the Screw productions at Seattle Opera. One year, a Miles’s voice began cracking a week before opening, and another young singer had to be brought in from Vancouver, B.C. This time, Seattle Opera isn’t able to have a cadre of Miles singers on standby (if Der Hacopian had his way, there would be six young men waiting in the wings, just in case). However, accomplished young artist Dominic Bennett, who sings in the Northwest Boychoir with Wu, has also been cast as Miles. Bennett will jump into today’s performance if either of the other two singers experience vocal cracking. Perhaps this is the final turn of the screw— the guessing game of working with a teenage-boy voice! Sit back, er, relax—and enjoy the wild ride ahead!

Forrest Wu (Miles) and Dominic Bennett (Miles Cover) in rehearsal for The Turn of the Screw. 
Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw
Oct. 13-27, 2018 at McCaw Hall
Tickets & info: seattleopera.org/turnscrew

Peter Kazaras turns Britten's Screw

By Jonathan Dean

After a recent Seattle performance of Porgy and Bess, soprano Angel Blue delighted local opera fans when she called Seattle Opera her “artistic home.” Another vital member of our Seattle Opera family is Peter Kazaras, who has called our stage home for over three decades. The artistic contributions Kazaras has made to Seattle Opera are many, ever since his 1985 debut as the handsome but worthless playboy Števa in Janáček’s Jenůfa.

In Seattle, Kazaras has sung everything from Faust to Tamino to Pierre in War and Peace to his definitive Loge in the Ring, and has directed both crowd-pleasers (The Marriage of Figaro and Madame Butterfly) and less familiar operas (including The Consul and the world premiere of An American Dream). As a teacher, he has trained an entire generation of opera artists, both in Seattle and in his other life as Director of Opera UCLA, where he directed Angel Blue in her first performance of Suor Angelica during her masters training.

The Seattle arts scene has also benefited from Kazaras’s affinity for the operas of Benjamin Britten. Not only was Kazaras unforgettable as the tormented Captain Vere in Billy Budd; he directed ingenious productions of several Britten works for Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, making the riches of these complicated and challenging operas available for both performers and audiences.

Seattle Opera has not presented Britten as often as some would like. Kazaras played the ghost of Peter Quint in our first Turn of the Screw, back in 1994, and he remembers how that intensely dramatic show inspired Seattle Opera’s tradition of post-show talk back. “Honestly, Speight [Jenkins, then General Director] figured the talk back would help people process this show. It’s not the kind of opera where you can just relax and let it wash over you. There’s no ‘transfiguration by love’ at the end! I think Speight hoped to save himself a lot of letter-writing by talking with patrons immediately after each performance.” But what makes The Turn of the Screw so challenging for the audience? Certainly the opera’s ambiguity can make people uncomfortable, particularly those who like everything spelled out and explained. People tend to read all sorts of horrors into the backstory of trauma and repression at the country estate of Bly, even though neither the original Henry James novella nor Britten’s operatic transformation ever explicitly answer the question of what happened there. James even makes a dig, in his preface, at readers frustrated by such a lack of explanation: “‘The story won’t tell...not in any literal, vulgar way.’”

Stage director of Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw, Peter Kazaras. 

Kazaras thinks Britten’s music actually intensifies this effect. “It’s the construction. This opera is not just tight; it’s obsessively, perfectly constructed. If you really listen to it, by the time you get to that final scene you are tormented by the clash of keys associated with the Governess and Quint. Britten leads you down the garden path of tonality in a musical analogue to what James meant by ‘turning the screw,’ which was actually a real-world torture device. People are able to withstand a certain amount of pressure; but if you take them to that level, and then intensify it, one little thing is enough to push you over the edge.”

According to Kazaras, “it is clear that neither Britten nor his librettist Myfanwy Piper intended a definitive answer to the question of whether the ghost ‘really’ exist. Merely creating singing characters was not an absolute answer to that question. Do the ghosts really exist? Good question! I like how Henry James answered that, with another question: ‘Do the ghosts exist? I don’t know, do you believe in ghosts?’ There are all sorts of ways to understand and/or explain the Governess and her fears,” Kazaras continued. “But even before all you get to that, here we have two kids who are orphaned and neglected. Their parents have died, as have the two other key figures in their life, and their guardian says, ‘Never contact me.’ Isn’t that horrible enough?”

Kazaras’s goal, as director, is to create a theater piece that makes your hair stand up on end. “When we did The Turn of the Screw in Bellevue, in 2006, I was very happy when a patron said to me, ‘I had stopped breathing by the end...how did you do that?’”

Rafi Bellamy Plaice (Miles) and Elizabeth Caballero (The Governess) in Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw. Philip Newton photo
Clearly, the opera tells the story of something that goes terribly, terribly wrong. But beyond that, Kazaras wants to leave room for everyone in the audience to complete the story. “A good production of this opera must preserve the ambiguity. If you depict the Governess as an inmate in a mental asylum, for instance, you spoil the opportunity for dramatic crescendo across the course of the opera. It should be slightly surreal, to knock people out of their comfort zone; but it should get more and more intense as the Governess feels she’s losing control, as the situation gets increasingly out of hand. Britten’s musical construction accomplishes this brilliantly. Follow his lead and you will get precisely where you need to get—to a place of utmost anxiety, and eventually to tragedy.”

And the audience must be seduced into dismantling their defenses and coming along for the ride, explains Kazaras. “It doesn’t work if they come in thinking they already know what’s going on. The essence of fear is the unknown. We hide our faces behind our fingers, not when we see something scary, but when we’re afraid we’ll see something scary. That’s what The Turn of the Screw is built on. The scariest monsters are the ones that live inside us. The scariest thoughts are the ones WE have. As Henry James put it: ‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough...and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.’”

So there’s the challenge for Kazaras and his creative team: to invite you to join them on this journey to the beautiful country house of Bly, and then give you room to supply your own terrors to fill in the gaps in the Governess’s story. “We start with a wall, upon which we can project both reality and dreams; quite literally, projections of what’s going on in the characters’ psyches. But it starts to shape-shift. You thought it was flat? Suddenly you realize it isn’t flat. Slowly it starts to morph, and to reveal things about itself. But nothing is certain. Ambiguity is the heart of The Turn of the Screw.

When fans of The Turn of the Screw asked author Henry James if the ghosts in his Gothic novella were real, James simply replied, "Do you believe in ghosts?" Moral ambiguity is at the heart of Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw. 

Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw 
Oct. 13-27, 2018 at McCaw Hall
Tickets & info: seattleopera.org/turnscrew



Thursday, October 4, 2018

What the heck is The Turn of the Screw really about?


By Jonathan Dean 

What the heck is Britten's opera, The Turn of the Screw, really about? Something terrible happened at Bly, and something appalling happens to the characters in this opera; but what was it? Will someone please tell us what is going on!?

No, we won’t! 

Ever since Henry James’ novella appeared in Collier’s magazine, serialized over the course of several months in early 1898, the many, many unanswered questions of this story have intrigued, frustrated, tantalized, and infuriated readers, not to mention those who encounter the story as translated into opera, TV, and film.

Are the ghosts real? Is the Governess crazy? Why was Miles expelled from school? Should we believe Mrs. Grose, when she describes Quint as truly despicable? How did Miss Jessel die? Was she pregnant, and if so, who was the father? What did the kids witness? What do the kids understand? Was there a crime, and if so, who was responsible?

But The Turn of the Screw is not a mystery, it’s a ghost story. Mysteries typically answer the questions they pose—including “Whodunit?”—by the end. Not only does The Turn of the Screw fail to answer any of those questions, its very lack of clarity is perhaps the point.

As poet Brad Leithauser wrote of James’s masterpiece in The New Yorker, “The book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity. It is rigorously committed to lack of commitment.”

Because this work of art is completely open, it functions as a bit of a Rorschach test. People have a tendency to find in it whatever issues they happen to bring into the theater with them

Some examples of how the work is interpreted:


The “No sex, please, we’re British” take:
Perhaps what happened at Bly wasn’t quite so dire, at least not by 2018 standards. Perhaps the kids learned about the birds and the bees due to the fact that their former Governess was carrying on an affair with a colleague. And Miles may have been expelled from boarding school because he dared discuss sex with his classmates. In Victorian England, the stigma of such an affair might very well destroy both Jessel and Quint, as seems to have happened. Which was worse for the kids—witnessing that whole sorry story, or having to pretend it never happened?

The Freudian view:
Or was the Quint-Jessel affair not a problem until the kids’ new Governess made it one? Early twentieth-century psychoanalysis often diagnosed a condition known as ‘sexual hysteria,’ that is, severe psychological problems arising from the sexual repression demanded of well-bred women in those days. (Even the word, ‘hysterical,’ is misogynist. Etymologically, it derives from ancient Greek “hustera,” or uterus, thus equating “the condition of having a uterus” with “an excessive and chaotic emotional life.”) In the opera, the Governess sees her first ghost when she’s alone in the park, fantasizing about an imaginary visit from the children’s uncle, on whom she seems to have a crush. Does that mean the ghosts are manifestations of her own suppressed libido? Or her nightmare-visions of what Flora and Miles will become, if she fails to protect their (or her own) innocence?

The relevance of #MeToo:  
Anyone who isn’t currently living in a cave, with a blindfold on and earplugs in, will get the sense that Bly is haunted by traumatic memories of some monstrous evil. (The exact details—rape, murder, incest, child abuse, self abuse, molestation, etc.—are left to the audience’s imagination, making the evil far scarier.) Ghosts may not really exist, but memories certainly direct and control all our lives, both repressed memories of trauma and fond memories of those we loved and lost. Are the ghosts scars in that sense, memories of people whom we loved, who hurt us, or both?


The 12-step reading:
As the opera unfolds, the Governess sets herself the job of freeing the kids from their malicious tutors in evil. She believes the ghosts are controlling the kids from beyond the grave, puppet-mastering their bad behavior. But stopping that bad behavior isn’t so easy, because now these kids are addicts: ashamed of what they’re doing, aware it’s destructive and wrong; but unable to stop. And as anyone who’s ever tried going cold turkey knows, it’s isn’t as easy as “Just say no.” (That’s true whether we’re talking about addiction to sex, drugs, a bad relationship, drinking too much Diet Coke, or just checking your iPhone every time you breathe.) The Governess is a kind of social worker, who appoints herself the duty of freeing these kids from their addiction. But it’s impossible to break someone else’s bad habit for them, and she ends up fixating on it obsessively. Isn’t that another kind of addiction?

The “love that dare not speak its name” take: 
Benjamin Britten, who composed the opera, clearly identified with Miles, the perfect little English boy who’s good at his lessons and plays the piano so brilliantly. But Miles/Benjamin also fantasizes, late at night, about a visit from the handsome valet who used to work for his uncle, despite a maternal figure who would probably prefer he be dead than gay. In some ways Quint mentors Miles the way W. H. Auden mentored Britten: the poet helped the composer accept his sexuality and find his voice as an artist, although eventually Britten felt it necessary to sever all his ties with Auden (who tended to be domineering). In both cases, student was transformed by teacher; but for better or worse?

Stage director Peter Kazaras, in a recent interview with Broadway World, rejects the either/or approach, common enough in Turn of the Screw criticism, which posits that ‘EITHER the ghosts exist, OR the governess is crazy.’



"It’s the wrong question to ask,” says Kazaras. “The death of art is reductivism ...You ask that in order to get yourself off the hook: ‘They’re ghosts; or it’s all in the woman’s mind. So there’s nothing we can do.’ As a society we’re all culpable for lack of involvement and empathy.”

One lesson we all can take away from The Turn of the Screw: if you see something, say something. For the Governess, the first indication that all is not well is the letter from Miles’s school, expelling the boy. Her response is the worst possible choice:

Mrs. Grose: What shall you do then?
The Governess: I shall do nothing.
Mrs. Grose: And what shall you say to him?
The Governess: I shall say nothing.
Mrs. Grose: Bravo!

Unlike Mrs. Grose, let’s not applaud that decision. Avoiding confrontation with the people in your life is usually not the answer. If we learn nothing else from The Turn of the Screw, may it at least encourage those who speak up as soon as they perceive a problem.

The Rorschach test is a psychological test in which subjects' perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person's personality characteristics and emotional functioning.
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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sit down for The Turn of the Screw—if you dare!

Seattle Opera marketing image for The Turn of the Screw. Photo by Philip Newton

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

As Halloween approaches, the movies aren’t the only place for a thrill in a darkened theater. This October, a ghost story will come alive through live music at Seattle Opera’s The Turn of the Screw directed by Peter Kazaras and conducted by Maestro Constatin Trinks. Set in an old mansion in the countryside, Benjamin Britten’s opera depicts a tale of haunted children that fans of Stranger Things, The Shining, and The Sixth Sense would love.

An unnamed Governess moves to an English country house to take care of two siblings, Miles and Flora, only to experience supernatural goings-on, and ominous whispers about the past. As she gets to know her young charges the Governess becomes increasingly convinced they are suffering some form of demonic possession. Britten dials up audiences’ adrenaline by leaving no easy answers: Are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel actual ghosts, returned from the dead, or are they products of the Governess's hysteria? Are the children demonically possessed, neglected victims of abuse, or just normal mischievous kids? Britten was fascinated by the mysteries of human behavior. What makes people act as they do? What hidden forces compel their choices? His operas (The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes to name a few) were filled with moral ambiguities and loss of innocence, and The Turn of the Screw is a perfect example.

Britten's operas are haunted by moral ambiguities and loss of innocence, not unlike classic movies such as The Shining and other eerie horror films and TV shows that place children at the center of a dark, supernatural plot. 
Alternating in the role of Miles are two 13-year-old boy-sopranos making Seattle Opera debuts: Rafi Bellamy Plaice of England, who was named the BBC Radio 2 Chorister of 2017, and Forrest Wu of Seattle who sings with the Northwest Boychoir. Inspired by the ethereal qualities of the adolescent voice, Britten’s operas often gave children opportunities to sing just as much as their adult co-stars.

“This piece offers a chance to see incredible young singers holding their own with adult professionals—not something you see every day in opera,” said Aren Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera’s Director of Artistic Administration and Planning, who helped cast the show. “When a storyteller adds a plot twist to create tension, this can be referred to as a ‘turn of the screw.’ These accomplished young artists play a big role in creating that scary and suspenseful experience.”

The cast also includes four singers returning to McCaw Hall. Cuban American soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who most recently sang here as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (2014), returns as the Governess. Frequent performer on The Metropolitan Opera stage Maria Zifchak, Ragonde in Seattle Opera’s Count Ory (2015), returns as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Starring as the two ghosts-in-residence, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are Ben Bliss and Marcy Stonikas respectively. British/Iranian soprano Soraya Mafi makes her Seattle Opera debut as Miles’ sister, Flora.

Rafi Bellamy Plaice (left) and Forrest Wu (right) make Seattle Opera mainstage singing debuts as Miles in The Turn of the Screw. 
The Turn of the Screw opens Saturday, Oct. 13 and runs through Saturday, Oct. 27. 
Tickets are available online at seattleopera.org/turnscrew


Thursday, September 6, 2018

A letter to the Community From Aidan

Aidan Lang; photo by Philip Newton.
To the Seattle Opera community,

I am writing to share some bittersweet news. My time with you in Seattle will come to an end this June 2019, as I have been appointed as General Director of Welsh National Opera. This decision has not come lightly as I love dearly both this community and opera company. Coming to Seattle Opera was one of the greatest honors of my life and I am still absolutely thrilled to have had created opera with you. Seattle Opera is known around the world for its enthusiastic and generous opera community, for its warmth and welcoming atmosphere for artists, and more recently, for our commitment to racial equity.

Some of you know that Welsh National Opera holds a special place in my heart. It is where my career in opera began. I consider WNO to be my artistic home—the only company for which I would even consider departing the Pacific Northwest.

We have accomplished much at Seattle Opera in the past five years, and I’m so very grateful to you. With your help, Seattle Opera has increased its audiences, particularly, young people, created a new civic home for opera at Seattle Center, introduced new chamber opera productions in locations around the city, and spurred complex conversations surrounding race, justice, and representation.

Many people who are new to Seattle or people visiting the area stop me at McCaw Hall to say how well we have done with bringing younger audiences into the opera house. They assure me (and I agree), this is not the case elsewhere in the US, and they worry about the future of opera in their cities. Young people in this city want to see opera and we should be proud of the fact that 40 percent of our ticket buyers are younger than age 50, a huge increase in the last four years. The future of opera in Seattle is bright.

In the meantime, the Seattle Opera Board of Trustees will soon appoint a search committee to identify the next General Director, who will carry out our mission and vision. Following my departure, Seattle Opera will will continue its commitment to being an equity leader in the opera industry, and among arts institutions in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

I look forward to greeting you at McCaw Hall again soon, and enjoying the next ten months in this great city.

With gratitude,

Aidan


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Allison Rabbitt Appointed Seattle Opera Development Director

Allison Rabbitt is Seattle Opera's
new Development Director. 
Whether it’s a $5 donation or a $50,000 donation, Allison Rabbitt knows that donors of all levels are needed to sustain art forms such as opera—every gift matters. Recently, General Director Aidan Lang appointed Rabbitt to lead Seattle Opera’s Development Department. With more than 18 years of nonprofit fundraising experience, Rabbitt is well equipped to take on the role. She will also ensure the completion of the $28.5 private fundraising campaign for Seattle Opera’s new home at Seattle Center.

Rabbitt sees her relationship to development as more of a calling than a job. She hopes to use her enthusiasm to inspire people, and to help them use their resources to change the world. Lucky for us, that now includes the world of opera.

“Community and the arts are just as important to me as food, clothing, and shelter, and I love asking for money because it generates beauty, connection, and gives people meaning to their life,” she said. “Seattle Opera will always have more creative ideas for programs than the community can fund. In partnership with the Opera’s outstanding Board of Directors and the Development team, I’m thrilled to be able to invite our community to create more joy and fulfill Seattle Opera’s mission.”

Rabbitt started her professional-fundraiser journey as a Girl Scout on Long Island. These values of giving back and civic duty have stayed with her for all her life, and they're values that she aims to perpetuate. Including in her own family. When Rabbitt's 8-year-old came to work with her one day and was helping put information packets together for Seattle Opera’s capital campaign, he offered to give $3 to support the project. Rabbitt was one proud mom—however, knowing her son, she wanted to see if he might be willing to donate just a little bit more. “My son loves Pokémon cards, which are $5 for a pack. I asked if he might be willing to stretch his $3 gift and donate in the amount of a pack of Pokémon cards; I knew that amount would really mean something to him and he thinks the building will be really cool.” After looking in his piggy bank, young William was able to make the $5 donation happen.

With fewer subscribers and an increasingly younger audience to serve, opera companies across the United States are having to rethink their funding models. Engaging donors at every financial level is part of the solution, Rabbitt says. Welcoming people of all socioeconomic backgrounds is also tied to the company’s mission of equity.

When the company moves into its new civic home, Seattle Opera at the Center, in December 2018, it will be able to continue breaking down barriers with more room to plan—and execute—programming for people of all ages. These programs include touring performances that travel to schools and retirement communities across Washington State.
A rendering of Seattle Opera's new home at Seattle Center, which will be opening later this fall. Rabbitt is taking on the capital campaign that ensures the opera
is able to provide as many opportunities and programs as possible at the new headquarters/rehearsal space. 

“Allison Rabbitt’s goal is to make supporting Seattle Opera irresistible,” said General Director Aidan Lang. “With her proven track record, Allison not only has the passion, but the leadership we need to create a sustainable opera company in the twenty-first century.”

Previously, Allison Rabbitt has helped create fundraising success for Seattle Center Foundation, the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery, and Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. She led Seattle Opera’s Individual Giving team to establish the major and mid-level giving programs, which includes a robust discovery program. Now, she leads the larger Development team to build sustaining partnerships throughout Puget Sound and to fully integrate donor engagement into every activity at Seattle Opera.

Friday, August 24, 2018

AMERICAN OPERA IN SEATTLE

We’ve had a great experience putting on Porgy and Bess this summer! This production was the fourth time Seattle Opera has presented what many consider the greatest of all American operas. In terms of numbers of performances and tickets sold, Porgy and Bess is certainly the most popular American opera our company has given.

But we’ve presented a smattering of other American operas over the years, as various and diverse as our sprawling melting pot of a nation. Musical highlights from Seattle Opera’s productions of many American operas are now available on SoundCloud. Here’s a catalogue full of links to that music, with the operas listed in the order in which they were originally created.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Praise for Porgy and Bess

Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess. Philip Newton photo
"Filled with artistic achievement and complex, engaging cultural relevance, Porgy and Bess is one of the best Seattle Opera productions ever." - Seattle Weekly 

"I can pretty much guarantee that you'll never have the opportunity to attend a better production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess than the one now playing at Seattle Opera." - Seattle Gay News 

Elizabeth Llewellyn, Bess. Philip Newton photo
"What a cast! Anyone who harbors doubts that we have a plentitude of African-American opera singers with the pipes and artistry to triumph in leading roles in the world’s great houses would have had their belief challenged by the stunning line-up for Seattle Opera’s opening night production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess." - Bachtrack 

Seattle Opera presents Porgy and Bess. Philip Newton photo
"...anyone self-debating whether to let go of The Cosby Show or Annie Hall can attend this P&B and hear the singers make it, grippingly and magnificently, their own. This production becomes so much more their characters’ story than Gershwin and Heyward’s." - Seattle Weekly 

Edward Graves (Robbins) and Lester Lynch (Crown). Philip Newton photo

"As it did a year ago for Madama Butterfly, Seattle Opera has confronted the problems with Porgy head-on, as an opportunity for audience education. The lobby at McCaw Hall contains a fine display of instructive material, and the Seattle Opera Blog is full of thoughtful, interesting pieces about the history of Porgy and great interviews with African American cast members and other artists and activists (seattleoperablog.com/p/black-voices-in-response-to-porgy-and.html)." - Seattle Gay News 


Alfred Walker (Porgy) and Angel Blue (Bess). Philip Newton photo
"It’s largely due to this stellar cast, and the show’s direction (by Garnett Bruce in a production originally staged by Francesca Zambello), that this “Porgy and Bess” — a co-production with Glimmerglass Festival — rises above the stereotypes." - The Seattle Times 

".. an enthralling evening, one where you can’t take your eyes or ears off the stage, no matter how well you may know its wonderful songs like “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and so many more. It’s a lively, well-knit, colorful and moving story and production, well worth seeing." - City Arts

Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life), with members of the Porgy and Bess cast. Philip Newton photo
"Jermaine Smith is an instant hit when he comes onto the scene, lighting up the stage and enlivening the scene as the dynamic Sportin’ Life ... Smith has played the role in 15 different productions around the world, and it shows. He knows the music forward and backward and carefully crafts his movements to every staccato and every slithering rhythm, making for a Sportin’ Life you can’t look away from." - The Seattle Times 

"And the chorus and several minor characters such Strawberry Woman (Ibidunni Ojikutu), Crab Man (tenor Ashley Faatoalia), Maria (contralto Judith Skinner) and soprano Brandie Sutton as Clara (who opened the opera with the heartrending “Summertime”) were top-drawer and on their games."  - Oregon Arts Watch

"Not only did Seattle Opera debutante Brandie Sutton cap Clara’s gorgeous 'Summertime' at the opera’s start with a perfectly floated high B, but she artfully darkened her delivery and reined in her vibrato during the aria’s tragic reprise." - Bachtrack 

Derrick Parker (Jake). Philip Newton photo
"Derrick Parker as a charismatic Jake destined to break our hearts and Bernard Holcomb as an adorably quirky Mingo help flesh out the Catfish Row community." - The Seattle Times 

"Lester Lynch was an ideal Crown who mated sneering aggression and naked violence with vibrant voice." Bachtrack 

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Serena). Philip Newton photo
"Much credit for this phenomenon goes to cast members Mary Elizabeth Williams and Judith Skinner, who are aflame as Serena and Maria, the powerful moral consciences of Catfish Row, the South Carolina coastal hamlet where the opera is set." - Seattle Weekly 

"Also adding immensely to the strong feel of community in this production is the chorus, with many of its members from the greater Seattle area, in addition to elsewhere. Rather than the noisy, reactionary bundle of bodies that the chorus has often been reduced to, the chorus here — used to its fullest potential, allowing it to be more than a backdrop — creates a real sense of community." - The Seattle Times 

"One of the wonders of this opera is that although the cast is large, Porgy and Bess is a true ensemble work, in which many members of the chorus have solo moments when they become important characters and then step back into the community at large. In this production, there isn't a weak link. Every singer is worthy of the solos, and the chorus as a whole has a glorious sound. Among the standouts are Judith Skinner as the feisty shopkeeper Maria, Ibidunni Ojikutu as Strawberry Woman, Ashley Faataolia as Crab Man, and Martin Bakari as Peter/Honey Man." - Seattle Gay News 


Seattle Opera presents Porgy and Bess. Philip Newton photo

"[Alfred Walker as Porgy] is calm and unmovable, strong and stable. Walker’s smooth bass-baritone solidifies this stolid Porgy, and it is a joy when he occasionally defies some of the jazzier tones of the music, making a song about gambling (“Roll dem bones”) sound more like a moving spiritual." - The Seattle Times 

“The program at [Phantom of the Opera at Paramount theater] lists the cast, their resumes. Porgy and Bess also has a program, but since Seattle Opera has been on a mission, lately, toward cultural equity and awareness, this program is full of essays, about cast member Mary Elizabeth Williams (who plays Serena, stunningly), about black artists and activists and their complicated and various relationships with the opera, and about 'Breaking Glass'—the public forum that Seattle Opera held before the show. Interacting with nearly any art form entails a weird sort of matrix of intention. You’re constantly trying to parse what’s ironic, say, from what’s earnest, what the artist meant from what a character says. You can do this through context, through history. But theater adds extra layers: There’s the text and music (of one time and place, usually) and then there’s the new staging of it (now), and there’s the way those interact. Theater is unavoidably about the present. And lately Seattle Opera has decided to make that explicit.” - Seattle Met 
 
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Bess) and Kevin Short (Porgy). Philip Newton photo 
 
"In the title roles of Porgy and Bess, bass-baritones Alfred Walker and Kevin Short and sopranos Angel Blue and Elizabeth Llewellyn are all superb, singing beautifully and bringing complexity and nuance to the stereotypes of the noble disabled man and the drug-addled loose woman. In my opinion, it really doesn't matter which pairing is featured in the performance you attend, because all four of these singers are so strong and because no other roles are double-cast."  - Seattle Gay News 

"...perhaps most disturbingly, the amoral dope peddler Sportin’ Life is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Jermaine Smith’s serpentine performance gives the show a shot of straight-up musical-comedy pizzazz." - Seattle Weekly 

Angel Blue (Bess) and Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life). 

"Blue as Bess has a liquid sunshine voice with a warm, controlled timbre. Though she disputes the parallel, Blue has been compared to the mid-century African-American diva Leontyne Price for her charisma, beauty and vibrant voice. You might have heard Blue in Portland Opera’s recent Faust as Marguerite or as Violetta in SO’s 2017 La Traviata. Like her co-star Walker, both to appear at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2018-19 season (she as Musetta in La Boheme, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute), Blue is a singer on the rise." - Oregon Arts Watch

"The show’s conductor, John DeMain, also led the 1976 Houston Grand Opera staging that brought P&B fully back into the public eye after decades of nips, tucks and neglect, and consequently knows the piece better than anyone alive. His triumph is to make unforgettable Gershwin’s moments of musical genius." - Seattle Weekly 

"This [Porgy and Bess] is a more important event in Seattle musical life (barring maybe a few world premieres and, OK, its Ring) than anything else SO has offered." - Seattle Weekly 

Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess. Philip Newton photo