"The Turn of the Screw" is a curious story. American novelist Henry James' Gothic fiction was originally published in 1898, and — as a study of passion, desire and obsession — pushed the boundaries between sanity and the supernatural.
"It's just the kind of thing that appealed to composer Benjamin Britten," says Willene Gunn of Brava! Opera, who is directing a production of Britten's chamber opera based on James' story. "He was always attracted to torment ... just like his operatic 'Peter Grimes,' 'Turn of the Screw' is a tremendously dramatic story."
Britten composed "The Turn of the Screw" in 1954, and, just as James before him, left many oddities and unanswered questions in the story. The housekeeper, the former governess and others in the story have names, yet the new governess does not. The ghosts in the novel are silent, while Britten gives them a great deal to say in his opera.
What: Brava! Opera's "The Turn of the Screw"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 6-7, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 9
Where: Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent
Tickets: $27; $15 for students
"Even with this, we still don't know whether the ghosts are real or not," Gunn says. "Both Britten and James wanted their audiences to decide."
Brava! Opera will present performances of Britten's operatic thriller at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 6-7, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 9, at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent.
Tickets cost $27, $15 for students, and can be purchased online at www.camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250.
Britten's music reflects the emotions and supernatural mystery in "The Turn of the Screw."
"He wrote the score based on a 12-note scale, and he moves the music within those notes," Gunn says. "It starts out happy. The governess is eager and pleased as she begins her new position caring for two children on a country estate in Essex."
When ghosts of the former governess and manservant — who met violent deaths — begin to appear, the peaceful existence is shattered, and her employment turns into a chilling struggle for the souls of the children. With the governess's belief that she must save the children from the influence of the ghosts, the tension, the "turning of the screw" between the young woman and what she sees as evil, increases until the final twist.
"Britten liked music that became tenser and tenser," Gunn says. "As the drama begins, as the ghosts appear and the governess begins to lose her innocence, the music slowly gets tighter with the storyline.
"Britten took a line from a Yeats poem, 'The Second Coming,' which read 'the ceremony of innocence is drowned,' and he uses it in the opening scene of the second act to ask the question: Whose innocence is being drowned, the governess's or the children's? That is the central theme to the opera."
Gunn staged this Britten opera years ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she worked as head of the opera program for 30 years.
"I've always wanted to do it again," she says. "Technical systems are not as limited now. I've had a great time working with Camelot's video and sound designer Brian O'Connor and lighting designer Paul Jones. I think it's going to be a visually fascinating show.
"I can also say I have a wonderful cast," Gunn says.
Tenor Brian Thorsett of San Francisco lends a rich tenor to the role Peter Quint, the ghost of the manservant.
Soprano Lindsay Ohse of New York City will sing the role of the governess.
Miss Jessel will be sung by soprano Krista Wigle of San Francisco, and Portland-based mezzo-soprano Beth Madsen Bradford returns to Brava! Opera to sing the role of Mrs. Grose. Local soprano Amanda Gerig sings Flora, and Will Ransom of Ashland sings Miles.
The opera will be sung in English. Conductor, music director and pianist Laurie Anne Hunter will lead violinist Arlene Taylor, cellist Michael Palzewicz, clarinetist Gwen Hutchings, pianist Jodi French, flutist Staci Scalfari and percussionist Theresa McCoy in accompaniment.
Set design is by Don Zastoupil and costumes are by Karen Douglas.