Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has been giving people the creeps for well over a hundred years. A tale of ghosts, repressed sexual desire and probable pedophilia set in a British manor, it has served as the source of a play, film adaptations (the best received being 1961's The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, which I just put in my Netflix queue) and an opera. The latter, written by gay composer Benjamin Britten, is currently having a satisfyingly spooky, beautifully staged and sung revival by LA Opera that runs through March 30 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Britten, however, isn't the only LGBT link to the current production. Highly acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette plays the lead role of the Governess, and she is an out lesbian. Prior to a recent phone interview I conducted with her, I wasn't aware just how out and proud is Racette. She justly but humorously chastised me for my ignorance.
"Oh my God," Racette declared, "You don't know?" She then illuminated me with mentions of her many appearances in LGBT publications, her recent involvement in the "It Gets Better" campaign against bullying of LGBT teens and, most significantly, her partnership of 14 years.
Racette and her partner, Beth, call Santa Fe, New Mexico their "home base" but the singer-actress performs throughout the US and around the world. Racette has previously starred in LA Opera mountings of Madama Butterfly and La Rondine, and has performed with such prestigious companies as New York's Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Scala in Milan, Vienna State Opera and Opera National de Paris.
While she has appeared in other operas by Britten, this is Racette's first time playing the Governess in The Turn of the Screw. "Yeah, this is a really big deal for me," she said. "It's a wonderful cast, and this is a role that has always been on my list of roles to play. I'd been offered it before but it didn't work out for one reason or another."
Racette called LA Opera's production, which is directed by Francesca Gilpin, "an interesting treatment, staged in vignettes, of an intriguing story." Indeed, Gilpin updates James's original tale and Britten's libretto to the 1950's and stages it in a bright, airy house during Christmas time as opposed to the traditional dark, gothic setting. This actually makes the appearances of the story's two ghosts — Mr. Quint (William Burden) and Miss Jessel (Tamara Wilson, looking like a grown-up version of the vengeful child wraith in the movie, The Ring) — all the more unexpected and unsettling.
Central to the text is the disturbing, lingering question of whether Mr. Quint sexually abused the Governess's two young charges, Miles (an excellent performance by 12-year old Michael Kepler Meo) and Flora (Ashley Emerson). The current production doesn't leave much to speculation in this regard, especially during Act II's opening scene wherein Quint caresses the sleeping Miles' body while he and Miss Jessel repeatedly sing, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned," cribbing from a poem by W.B. Yeats.
"I think this is something that's debatable, but there's always a bit of a homosexual or pedophilia theme in Britten's work," Racette replied to my question of whether she saw any resonance for the LGBT community in the opera. "The Governess is definitely not gay," she laughed, "but the story has a relevance and complexity, especially in the character of Quint. It is provocative."
Other operas composed by Britten, who was unique for being openly gay in early-20th century Britain, include the classics Peter Grimes and Billy Budd as well as a musical setting of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The year 2013 will mark what would have been Britten's 100th birthday, so expect many opera companies to perform his works between now and then.
According to Racette, "Peter Grimes is musically complicated but not as musically complicated as The Turn of the Screw and the role of the Governess." Under the musical direction of LA Opera's always impressive James Conlon, the opening night performance on March 12 was aurally spectacular. There are only six singers in The Turn of the Screw (the other cast member is Ann Murray as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose) accompanied by a small orchestra, making it a chamber opera rather than a full-blown, chorus-infused production. The cast's voices melded together both gloriously and, when called for, eerily.
There aren't too many operatic ghost stories, although ghosts are all the rage nowadays on TV with various investigative reality series devoted to them. I encourage ghost-obsessed Angelenos and others to catch Patricia Racette and The Turn of the Screw while you can.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.