The next production of the University of Colorado Eklund Opera Program, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, is a Victorian-era ghost story. Whether the ghosts are real or not, however, Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman won’t say.
“I want that to be part of the mystery of the piece,” Holman says. “As a stage director I usually stay away from ambiguity, but in this case, I’m not doing that. I want people to leave and have those discussions — was it real?”
Performances will be April 25-28 in the Imig Music Building’s intimate Music Theatre. A cast of graduate and undergraduate students will be accompanied by a 13-piece chamber orchestra of freelance professional musicians, conducted by Jeremy Reger.
Britten’s opera is based on a short story by Henry James, about a governess hired to care for two children living in a remote English country home. Strange things start to happen, beginning when the boy, Miles, is permanently dismissed from his school without clear explanation.
Then the governess starts seeing ghosts, who apparently are Peter Quint, a former servant in the household, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. She believes the ghosts are trying to lure the children — Miles and his younger sister, Flora — into demonic activities. Whether they are real, or creations of her overheated imagination, is the issue Holman wants the audience to decide for themselves.
Projected images will help create a spooky atmosphere. “This is the first time in my tenure here that we’ve [used] projections,” Holman says. “We’re excited to delve into using projections. This piece is perfect for it.”
In recent years, Holman has mounted several productions that were based on popular television series — first House of Cards, then Game of Thrones. In this case, the inspiration came from The Twilight Zone.
“I grew up watching television,” she says. “This is right out of The Twilight Zone. When you finished watching, you said, ‘Did I really understand that? Did it really go that far?’”
The Turn of the Screw fits that mold because there are unresolved issues in both the story and the opera. One that is creepily disturbing is the sexual ambiguity of the characters. There is the attempted seduction of the children, but we also learn that Peter Quint had seduced Miss Jessel. Quint is described as having been “too free” with everyone, and other sexual attractions are suggested.
This is a difficult issue for performers and audiences alike. “There have been uncomfortable moments that we’ve talked through” in rehearsals, Holman says. “[The actors] already are finding different ways of approaching these very spooky and disorienting ideas.”
The production is designed to underline the growing spookiness. “The entire show is in black and white, including costumes — however, the ghosts are in color,” Holman explains. “In the beginning everything is symmetrical and beautiful and perfect. But when we get the letter that Miles was bad at school, we see the projections start to tilt a little bit. We start to see strangeness sneak in, and the audience will start to feel everything getting a little creepy.”
Britten’s music adds to the creepiness, partly through the atmospheric sounds he gets from the ensemble of 13 players, and partly through the use of sinuous vocal lines. “The process of learning the music is a challenge,” conductor Reger says. “I keep telling the singers there’s a point in learning a Britten score where you’re tearing your hair out because it’s so hard, and then you wake up one morning and it suddenly makes sense.”
The singers also help create the ghostly quality of the story through their performance. “The singers are exploring vocal color,” Reger says. “They’re getting an eerie tone, which is what we’ve asked them to do.”
The orchestral parts require virtuoso players, but the music is very rewarding. “Every part in the orchestra is very exposed, and that makes it really fascinating to listen to,” Reger says. “The orchestra is as much a part of the story as the singers.
“We had people asking to participate because they’re so interested in this piece. It’s more than an opera, it’s a piece of amazing chamber music.” Fittingly, the performers include a professional chamber ensemble, Boulder’s Altius String Quartet, on the string parts.
Britten ingeniously creates an otherworldly atmosphere and portrays the gradual turning of the screw through his music, but the compositional details are not as important as the experience of the music, for both singers and audience.
Reger suggests two aspects are paramount. For the singers, it is the opportunity to sing chamber opera, which requires a more detailed and intimate performance than the grand operas they more often perform. And for the audience?
“The singers are all great,” he says. “It’s perfectly cast.”
ON THE BILL:The Turn of the Screw — Eklund Opera Program, Leigh Holman, director; Jeremy Reger, music director.
7:30 p.m. April 25–27
2 p.m. April 28.
Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building, 303-492-8008,