The role of young Miles in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 adaptation of Henry James' spooky novella raises particular challenges.
In some ways, the spookiest element in author Henry James’ 1898 horror novella “The Turn of the Screw” is an unexplained letter of expulsion from a boarding school.
Sure, there are a couple of unnerving ghosts hanging around the story and a seemingly haunted, possibly possessed, pair of siblings presenting their governess with unique problems. Yet the thing that troubles the latter the most is why the older of the kids, a boy named Miles, was kicked out of his school for reasons unknown.
What happened there? What did he do?
That problem adds to a more general enigma surrounding Miles, who is sweet but manipulative and eerily remote. One is never really sure who Miles is or is developing into, which means Seattle Opera’s choice to cast several actors as the character in composer Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” adds to the riddle Miles poses.
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The role of Miles in Britten’s 1954 work calls for a boy soprano. Typically an actor-singer around the age of 13 or 14 is cast, too young to meet the demands of daily performances. There is also, somewhere during the onset of puberty, the possibility of change in a boy’s voice, deepening by degree as he moves into adulthood.
“There aren’t too many roles in opera that require such an amount of focused leading from a child on stage,” says Aren Der Hacopian, director of artistic administration and planning at Seattle Opera. “There are certainly children’s choruses, and maybe a pageboy part; or a child is supposed to be on stage and will be performed by an adult. But that is not too often. ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a very special situation.”
Seattle Opera has thus cast three young men as Miles: two on rotation through the part, and another to cover for either should illness strike or someone’s voice start to crack. The trio of boys performing as Miles at different times includes Rafi Bellamy Plaice, 14, and Forrest Wu, 13, who rotate in the part; and Dominic Bennett, 14, who will cover for the other two, should need arise. Plaice is from Brighton, U.K., while Wu and Bennett are both from Seattle and longtime members of Northwest Boychoir.
Each has a unique background and personality, which can’t help but make Miles seem all the more elusive in the big picture. Plaice and Wu will put their particular stamp on the show, and Bennett may have an opportunity to do so. But different audiences will have different experiences.
“They’re young,” says Hacopian, “and unless they were born in the environment of Hollywood or professional theater, it’s going to take more work to get them to a level one would need for a production like this. But I think so far they’re doing great.”
Adding to the creative casting is Soraya Mafi, a young adult singer-actress from Manchester, U.K. as Miles’ sister, Flora. Elizabeth Caballero, from Havana, Cuba, is the governess, and the rest of the cast includes Maria Zifchak, Marcy Stonikas and Ben Bliss. Typically for an opera cast, there are no “covers” on hand for the adults.
In a crisis, says Hacopian, if an adult actor is incapacitated, options can require extreme actions, such as scrambling to find another actor from a large swath of the U.S. who might know the role. Or if the ill or injured actor can at least move through a performance and mouth the words, a substitute singer can fill in with a voice from offstage. The show must go on.
Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” is a fascinating adaptation of James’ story, one which necessarily has to make choices about things that draw their power in the text from ambiguity. Spirits don’t have to say a word in James’ version; in the opera they sing like everyone else. Critical debate over the governess’ sanity has been around since the story was originally serialized in Colliers magazine. In the opera, her possible descent into madness is directly addressed. (The libretto for Britten’s “Turn” was written by Myfanwy Piper.)
Seattle Opera produced one mainstage “The Turn of the Screw” before, in 1994. The director of the new one, Peter Kazaras, also led a 2006 young-artists production of “Turn” for the company, and he is building on the latter’s original concept. Constantin Trinks makes his Seattle Opera debut as conductor.
Asked what they think of Miles and what they need to do to perform the role, young Plaice, Wu and Bennett offer some thoughts via a conference call.
Bennett: “I find it a very weird situation for Miles. I feel he’s just this innocent boy and all of a sudden he starts doing this weird stuff and continues to act as if everything is totally peachy and normal. Everybody’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with him. And it’s really interesting to watch him fall apart from whatever is going on.
“A little bit of me already connects with Miles, in a way I didn’t quite expect. It’s like something inside me is waiting to come out.”
Plaice: “On the surface, he seems like a nice boy, but he’s actually quite naughty. It’s interesting to see him be corrupted by [a particular male ghost]. I think the reason Miles likes him so much is because he (i.e., Miles) is surrounded by all these women. When he’s walking, he says, I am alone in my own kind.
“At my school I played the lead in ‘Oliver!,’ and while Miles is very different from Oliver, on the surface he’s trying to act like him.”
Wu: “I just think he’s a really interesting character, and the whole thing is just a cool mystery. You never know what’s actually happening to him.”
Asked if they have become aware of any changes to their voices prior to the show, two say yes but that they have the situation well under control.
“The initial thing boys lose is control of their middle voice,” says Joseph Crnko, director of Northwest Boychoir. “They can still sing high and they can still sing low, but their middle voices go. You’d think the high voice would be the first to go, but that’s not what happens.”
“I can still hit high notes pretty accurately,” says Bennett, “but I started working on my chest singing so if my voice does start to go, my chest voice can help out a little bit.
“I wanted to watch an opera come together from the inside. When my mom asked me if I was interested in auditioning, I said, heck yeah. It’s a great opportunity.”
“The Turn of the Screw,” by Benjamin Britten; Oct. 13-27; Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer Street, Seattle; $59-$204; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org