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