Tuesday, October 9, 2018

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