The intrigue in The Turn of the Screw is Quint’s existence; Henry James never confirmed or denied it.
He left the idea of a ghost to his readers, as does Benjamin Britten in his operatic adaptation of Miller’s story.
“I read a quote that said ghosts are real if you need them to be,” Dugg McDonough said. “That’s what’s happening here.”
McDonough is the artistic director for the LSU Opera, which opens Britten’s The Turn of the Screw on Thursday, March 21, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre. He’s also a fan of Britten’s operas, which many times call for small casts accompanied by small orchestras.
“But Britten’s operas are so tightly written that there’s not one wasted note,” McDonough said.
“And though the cast and orchestra are small, the audience never feels cheated out of seeing a big opera.”
The Turn of the Screw is performed in English.
The opera was commissioned by the Venice Biennale and premiered on Sept. 14, 1954, at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Britten composed the music, while Myfanwy Piper, wife of the artist John Piper, wrote the libretto.
At the time of the première, the opera was described as one of the most dramatically appealing English operas. It is performed in two acts with a prologue and 16 scenes, each preceded by a variation on the 12-note Screw theme.
The story opens with a character known as Prologue, who tells about a young governess who cared for two children at Bly House. She was hired by their uncle, who lived in London and was too busy to care for them.
He ordered her never to write him about the children, the boy Miles and his sister Flora, never to inquire about the history of Bly House and never to abandon the children.
So the mystery begins, for it doesn’t take long for Peter Quint to show up. He’s the valet who died under mysterious conditions on an icy road near Bly House. And his dark past unfolds when he appears in ghost form. The governess can see him, as can Miles. And Miles falls under Quint’s manipulative spell.
Yet others never see Quint, prompting the question, is Quint a figment of Miles’ imagination? Is the boy’s power of suggestion so strong that the governess thinks she’s also seeing a ghost?
Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
“Dugg told us that the ghost is real for those who need him to be real,” William McGibney said.
There’s that quote again. It also applies to the audience, because audience members will have to decide for themselves if Quint is real. Or not.
McGibney, is the 13-year-old eighth grader cast in the role of Miles.
This is his first stage role, having auditioned after LSU Opera Music Director Michael Borowitz asked him to audition.
“My husband and I are both musicians,” said Lisa McGibney, William’s mom.
Lisa McGibney also is director of the Louisiana Junior String Ensemble in the Louisiana Youth Orchestra program.
“Michael knows us and said we should consider bringing Miles to an audition,” Lisa McGibney said.
“This is the right time, because he’s old enough to play the role, but his voice hasn’t changed yet.”
The McGibneys also home school William, which allows for greater flexibility in his schedule, which can easily be rearranged to meet rehearsal demands.
“This has been the greatest experience for us,” Lisa McGibney said. “He’s 13, but they treat him like a professional. Everyone’s been so great, and our only regret is that it’s about to end.”
But it ends with William McGibney’s stage debut, the thought of which doesn’t make him nervous. Well, not so far.
“I think I’ll be OK,” he said.
McGibney likes his character but was uncomfortable with some parts of the story at first.
“He’s manipulated by the ghost, and the ghost makes him do things,” William McGibney said.
“He was really uncomfortable with it at first,” Lisa McGibney said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’ve never hit anyone before.’ The ghost manipulates him into hitting his sister. But he’s done well with it.”
But has Lisa McGibney? Without totally giving away the ending, suffice it to say the story concludes in tragedy.
Who’s the victim?
Who is the cause?
Well, you’ll have to attend the opera to learn the answer.
“Michael asked me if I was OK with seeing this happen,” Lisa McGibney said.
Well, it’s opera, after all. Drama on the stage. But some cast members didn’t handle the stage conflict so well in the beginning.
“Both of the singers playing the governess have young sons,” McDonough said
And both have broken into tears during the course of rehearsal.
That’s simply been a part of the process of this show, where Britten’s rich music is once again coming to life. This is McDonough’s second time directing The Turn of the Screw.
“And I can’t say enough about this opera,” he said. “Benjamin Britten is the reason I moved from directing dramas and musical theater to opera.”
He also raves about Alan Rusnak’s set design. Rusnak is the New Orleans Opera Association’s set designer but also has designed LSU Opera sets for the last 10 years.
“What he’s designed for this show is a raked stage with a tower,” McDonough said. “The tower is unfinished, with bricks exposed, and it changes in every scene.”
The tower is the ominous symbol of the screw that turns and tightens in this story.
“It also works with the brick wall at the back of the stage, and we might incorporate that into the set,” McDonough said. “There’s so much opportunity for creativity in a show like this. It’s one of those cases where two plus two equals four and a-half.”
And it challenges audience members.
Is Quint the ghost real? Or not?
Cast: Greg Gallagher, Prologue, Quint; Richard G. Leonberger, Prologue, Quint; Kristen Marchiafava, The Governess; Penny Shumate, The Governess; William McGibney, Miles; Natalie Logan, Flora; Jenee Luquette, Flora; Lauren Brown, Mrs. Grose; Zuly Inirio, Mrs. Grose; Megan Barrera, Miss Jessel; Roseann Mannino, Miss Jessel.
Director: Dugg McDonough
Music Director: Michael Borowitz