The Turn of the Screw

An Opera by Benjamin Britten

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

W. B. Yeats. The Second Coming

About

The Turn of the Screw is a disturbing work, a novelty in the opera world for being something of a horror story with genuine chills. Based on Henry James's novel of the same name, it's an old fashioned ghost story that touches on issues of a very contemporary nature.

An Old Mansion
The Haunted House by William Miller after Birket Foster

Musically it is one of Britten's most interesting. The narrative is divided into a prologue and 16 scenes that are fairly episodic in nature. However they are connected together by variations of the "Screw" theme, built around the twelve note row. The sequence ascends in the first Act and descends in the second.

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The notes of the screw theme

The prologue begins with just a piano accompaniment and the ensemble is a mere 13 players, yet the soundworld evoked feels far more substantial.

Characters

NameVocal TypeDescription
FloraSopranoMiles's younger sister, though usually sung by an adult which means she's often played older.
GovernessSopranoThe opera's main protagonist, never given a name. A 20 year old woman, intelligent but volatile. She views herself as a heroine even if we're not so sure.
MilesTrebleA fairly creepy boy of 10. One of the two children the Governess has been sent to care for at Bly.
Miss JesselSopranoThe last governess, deceased.
Mrs. GroseSopranoThe housekeeper at Bly. The Governess's only adult companion and as a result her confidant.
Peter QuintTenorFormerly a valet at Bly, deceased.
PrologueTenorA narrator of sorts who opens the evening. Usually sung by the same singer as Peter Quint.
  • Flora

    Soprano

    Miles's younger sister, though usually sung by an adult which means she's often played older.

  • Governess

    Soprano

    The opera's main protagonist, never given a name. A 20 year old woman, intelligent but volatile. She views herself as a heroine even if we're not so sure.

  • Miles

    Treble

    A fairly creepy boy of 10. One of the two children the Governess has been sent to care for at Bly.

  • Miss Jessel

    Soprano

    The last governess, deceased.

  • Mrs. Grose

    Soprano

    The housekeeper at Bly. The Governess's only adult companion and as a result her confidant.

  • Peter Quint

    Tenor

    Formerly a valet at Bly, deceased.

  • Prologue

    Tenor

    A narrator of sorts who opens the evening. Usually sung by the same singer as Peter Quint.

Synopsis

Prologue - Running Time: 10 mins

A male figure tells the audience of "a curious story, written in faded ink": a Governess who cared for two young children at Bly. She was hired by their guardian, an uncle living in London with no interest in caring for them himself. He instructed her to follow three rules: never write to him about the children, never ask about the history of Bly house and never abandon the children.

Richard Greager sings the prologue

Act I - Running Time: 45 mins

Theme - The Journey

The Governess travels to Bly

Variation I - The Welcome

The Governess is nervous of her new position but is warmly greeted by Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, and the two children Flora and Miles. She feels a strange connection to Miles but is led off by Mrs Grose on a tour of the grounds around Bly.

Variation II - The Letter

Her fears depart her but she is soon brought back to earth when a letter from Miles's school arrives informing her that Miles has been expelled. No reason is given and she is convinced Miles is too innocent to have been expelled and it must be a mistake, she decides to ignore the letter.

Variation III - The Tower

Wandering the grounds one evening, the Governess sees a strange man on the tower. She doesn't recognise him and is unsettled by the whole experience.

Sara Hershkowitz sing's 'How beautiful it is', otherwise known as the 'Governess's Aria'

Variation IV - The Window

The children play indoors, the Governess watching over them spots the same unknown figure at the window. She is concerned and describing him to Mrs Grose learns that he appears to be Peter Quint, the former valet. Mrs Grose explains that Quint had an illicit relationship with the last Governess, Miss Jessel specifically that he "made free" with her. They have both since died: Jessel away from the house, Quint falling on an icy road. Terrified the Governess fears he has return for Miles and swears to protect the children.

He liked them pretty, I can tell you, Miss, and he had his will morning and night

Mrs Grose

Variation V - The Lesson

Miles is reciting Latin with help from Flora and the Governess. Praising him, the Governess asks if you knows any other rhymes. Miles then produces quite one of the creepiest arias in all of opera 'Malo'

David Hemmings sings Malo

Variation VI - The Lake

By the side of lake at Bly, the Governess sits reading whilst Flora sings to her doll. Across the lake the Governess catches sight of a woman all in black, who disappears as mysteriously as she appeared. The Governess believes Miss Jessel has returned as well and as Flora did not see her she becomes convinced that the children are lost.

Variation VII - At Night

Quint calls out to Miles, tempting him from his bed with exotic and desirable visions, Miles is utterly taken. Miss Jessel appears, attracting Flora, she laments her fate begging Flora to comfort her. Together they try, successfully, to convince the children to find them. Mrs Grose and the Governess entered terrified by the children's apparent vanishing. The Governess scolds Miles.

You see, I am bad, aren't I?

Miles

Act II - Running Time: 50 mins

Variation VIII - Colloquy and Soliloquy

Quint and Jessel flesh out their motives and backstory. They argue over their past and declare their determination to capture Miles and Flora. Separately the Governess despairs at the evil she feels, unable to decide how to act.

Variation IX - The Bells

The family head to church, the children singing a gently mocking variation of the 'Benedicite'. Mrs Grose remains unaware of the subtext thinks it sweet until the Governess informs her of the children's bizarre behaviour. Mrs Grose suggests the Governess simply write to the guardian, which she unhappily declines. Miles creepily informs the Governess of his own awareness of the Ghosts leading her to contemplate fleeing...

ENO Flora shouts at the Governess
Flora (Lauren Worsham) and Miles (Benjamin P. Wenzelberg) on their way to Church, Richard Termine/NYCO

Variation X - Miss Jessel

Returning to the house, the Governess finds Miss Jessel in the schoolroom bemoaning her fate. Confronting her - Jessel vanishes. Believing the ghosts might not yet have the upperhand, the Governess writes to the guardian.

Variation XI - The Bedroom

Later that night the Governess goes to Miles's bedroom, coaxing him to tell her about what happened at his school. She tells him of the letter to his guardian but he barely responds as the voice of Quint intervenes, she leaves despondent.

Variation XII - Quint

Seduced by Quint, Miles steals the letter from the schoolroom.

Variation XIII - The Piano

Miles is showing off at the piano. Flora sings, lulling Mrs Grose to slip before slipping out. Noticing Flora's absence the Governess panicked awakens Mrs Grose. They hurry off to find her while Miles continues at the Piano.

Variation XIV - Flora

They find Flora by the lake, Mrs Grose tries to comfort her but the Governess seeing Miss Jessel aggressively tries to make Flora admit that she too can see Jessel. Flora madly accuses the Governess of cruelty and leaves with Mrs Grose. The Governess realizes she has lost Flora.

ENO Flora shouts at the Governess
Flora (Nazan Fikret) shouts at The Governess (Rebecca Evans), Clive Barda/ENO

Variation XV - Miles

The next morning Mrs Grose informs the Governess that having spent the night with Flora she is convinced that Flora is possessed by evil. They agree that Mrs Grose will take Flora to London leaving Miles with the Governess. She presses him to confess, whilst Quint savagely demands Miles not betray him. Miles admits to stealing the letter but will not name Quint. Finally he cries out, 'Peter Quint -- you devil' and dies. Quint disappears. The Governess weeps, holding the dead Miles.

What have we done between us?

The Governess

Major Arias

NameSung byExcerpt
It is a curious storyPrologue
MaloMiles
Nearly thereGoverness
  • It is a curious story

    Sung by: Prologue

  • Malo

    Sung by: Miles

  • Nearly there

    Sung by: Governess

Where & When

Screw takes place entirely at Bly: a large, imposing country mansion and estate in Essex, England. It's a period piece set around the 1840s. The atmospheric setting strongly imitates the narrative, so much so that Britten almost called his opera: "The Tower and the Lake" (along with the male/female sexuality that such a title evokes).

The period is important because some of the plot elements might seem odd to modern audiences. To begin with the strange, absent guardian was not altogether unusual even amongst more loving families. The industrial revolution was driving much of the wealth away from rural areas towards major cities. The breadwinner (always the man) might well work in London leaving his country estate in the hands of others, and whilst transportation was fast improving regular commuting was not yet feasible.

A Victorian Governess Teaching
A Victorian governess teaching

Governesses were also a curious species in the Victorian era. Both servant and lady, in a strongly hierarchical society they were an anomaly. The Governess was considered a moral conservator of sorts, bound to bring up children as good and proper. Our Governess seems to see herself in this image. Conversely Quint as the Valet dresses much like his master but is entirely a servant. Yet Quint has his own power, using his gender to seduce Miss Jessel, the last Governess, corrupting her in the eyes of society.

James was far from the only one to use this social limbo that Governesses occupied in Victorian life for fertile drama (often with transgressive romantic themes). Think Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Brontë's Jane Eyre and Austen's Emma amongst many others.

History

Listen to wireless … a wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie & scarey play 'The Turn of the Screw' by Henry James.

Britten in his Diary, 1st June 1932

Screw was Britten's final chamber opera. It was commissioned in 1952 for the Venice Biennale. Myfanwy Piper had years earlier suggested James's The Turn of the Screw as a potential subject for a television opera and encouraged by Peter Pears, Britten asked her to put together an outline for how it might be adapted into an opera.

He was at this time working on Gloriana which had been commissioned for the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. As a result it wasn't until autumn of 1953 that serious work could begin. However Britten was suffering badly from acute bursitis in his right shoulder and could barely work. Piper began sending draft copies of the libretto in early 1954 and by this time Britten was reduced to writing letters to her with his left hand.

He had minor surgery in March and with the opera's premiere set for September he was faced with an extremely tight schedule. He wrote the score in a little over 4 months from the end of March to August 1954. The premiere was so close that Imogen Holst, Britten's amanuensis, would make a vocal score of each scene as it was completed so that the singers could begin preparing whilst the opera was still being written.

David Hemmings as Miles
David Hemmings as Miles

Britten wanted children to play the children but found it impossible to cast a suitable girl for the role of Flora so the part was given to an adult, Olive Dyer. Miles on the other hand went to a 12 year old David Hemmings (who went on to be an extremely successful actor). He would form a strong relationship with Britten - whose relationships with young boys has been the subject of much discussion - at least until his voice broke in 1956 during a performance of Screw in Paris.

The opera was rehearsed in England with the entire team travelling to Venice for the premiere. The day of the premiere was a stressful one. The Italian stage crew threatened to go on strike and then, with the audience seated and ready to go, the performance had to be delayed because it was being transmitted live on the radio and an earlier broadcast had run over.

The reception, from a huge mix of international press, was fairly positive and fascinatingly a French newspaper referred to 'the composer's customary intense preoccupation with homosexual love', which is very possibly the first unambiguous reference to Britten and homosexuality in the press.

The same team would present the opera at Sadler's Wells and it was swiftly recorded (in part because of fears Hemmings's voice would break) by Decca becoming the first complete record of a Britten opera. The opera would receive performances around the world over the next few years and has been a fairly solid part of the repertory ever since.

Fun Facts

You Devil

"Whom do you mean by 'he'?"
"Peter Quint — you devil!"

Rarely have dashes been quite so picked over. To whom does Miles actually refer, Peter Quint or the Governess? If you lean towards believing Miles being genuinely possessed then it is probably Quint, however if you're more toward the Governess being insane then he could well be suggesting that it is the Governess that has led him to his demise. Who is the true villain? In the original novel there is of course no easy answer, we have nothing to go on but the text. Britten and Piper decided to leave it just as ambiguous. The practicalities of the stage however mean any production has to make something of a decision, we've seen it go both ways!

Copyright

Getting permission to use Henry James's novella proved difficult, a matter not helped by the fact Britten had written most of the opera before even asking, something that may have perturbed the James Estate. Curiously part of the problem stemmed from the very thing that had drawn Britten to the work, the sexual ambiguity, James's family still deeply concerned with the rumours around his sexuality. After some years of back and forth, and the granting of limited rights solely for the Venice performances, Britten's solicitor cunningly worked out that if the opera was based not on the novella but on the serialization that had been earlier published (and it was impossible to prove it wasn't!), James's Estate had no control over the work.

James in Opera

Henry James's work has found a considerable afterlife in operatic treatments. Britten adapted not just Screw but later also Owen Wingrave (1971). James's Washington Square has been adapted three times by Jean-Michel Damase (1974), Thomas Pasatieri (1976) and Donald Hollier (1988) and his "The Aspern Papers" twice by Philip Hagemann and Dominick Argento (both 1988). Pretty good going for an author who once turned down the opportunity to meet Richard Wagner, in April 1880 when both were in Posilipo, Italy, on the grounds that he didn't speak German (he had perhaps more substantial reasons he didn't elucidate).

ComposerOperaYear of Premiere
Benjamin BrittenThe Turn of the Screw1954
Douglas MooreThe Wings of the Dove1961
Benjamin BrittenOwen Wingrave1971
Thea MusgraveThe Voice of Ariadne1974
J. H. DamaseL'Héritière (Washington Square)1974
Thomas PasatieriWashington Square1976
Salvator SciarrinoSingspiel in due atti da Henry James, con framenti di Lorenzo Da Ponte.1978
Philip HagemannThe Aspern Papers1988
Dominick ArgentoThe Aspern Papers1988
Donald HollierThe Heiress1988

Dirty Latin

One can read too much into anything, and perhaps Valentine Cunningham does in her Guardian essay but it's hard to avoid that the Latin that Piper and Britten inserted into the text (none of it originating in James' novella) has secondary meanings. Sexual slang, mostly for male body parts, can be found throughout the childrens' Latin lesson and the strange benedicite sung by Miles is riddled with innuendo, blasphemous by any standards and indicative of the wider ambiguous sexuality of Miles's relationships with the adults in his life.

Broadcast

In 1959 the opera was shown as the first full length opera to be broadcast on British independent television. The two acts were shown on different nights, Act I on the 25th of October and Act II on the 28th. If a copy of this still exists we haven't been able to find it. This would not be the last television adaptation, the BBC produced a very fine version in 1982 that is rather more accessible, as you can find the whole thing in fairly low quality of youtube.

The BBC's 1982 Version

Adaptations

The Turn of the Screw has been adapted and referenced across so many works of art since its publication we couldn't nearly mention them all here. One of the earliest adaptations was "The Innocents" a 1950 Broadway play that later became a movie. More recently "The Others" starring Nicole Kidman took yet another stab at reinventing similar themes, with a rather cunning twist added. The rather less substantial "Insidious 2" features a child reading a copy of the novel and somewhat satirically a ghost later unscrews a chandelier. There have been endless television adaptations and perhaps most bizarrely a Star Trek episode entitled "Sub Rosa" featuring a Ned Quint and a Jessel Howard

Popularity

Britten's The Turn of the Screw had a successful premiere and was fairly quickly performed around the world. It's popularity ever since is easy to underestimate: it may come as some surprise that from from 2009 to 2014 Screw was the second most performed opera in English (only Dido and Aeneas was performed more).

In Brief

  • Name The Turn of the Screw
  • Composer Benjamin Britten
  • Language English
  • Date of premiere Sept. 14, 1954
  • Number of Acts 2
  • Music length 1 hours, 40 minutes

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