Opening Thursday night, the University of New Mexico Opera Theatre presents Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” based on the gothic novella by Henry James. Professor Leslie Umphrey directs and Kristin Ditlow, Ph.D. conducts the music for the dark ghost story.
“It’s really ‘Downton Abbey’ gone terribly wrong in a way,” Ditlow said.
The plot focuses on a new governess to two children living on a secluded estate, Bly House. The governess becomes convinced the house is haunted and is a danger to the children. The story has multiple interpretations, as the truth is occluded in both the novella and the opera.
“Are the two children getting possessed? How much homosexuality or pedophilia is in the plot or not? It is very ambiguous. Henry James leaves it up to the audience to decide and to imagine. And that in some ways makes it darker than something that really spells everything out for the audience,” Ditlow said.
The chamber opera was selected for performance last year based on the vocal talent in the music department this semester.
“It was chosen because it was on my bucket list and we had the talent to do it this year,” Umphrey said.
The musical forces behind the opera are rather small, sporting a 13-person chamber orchestra constituting a mix of UNM graduate students and professional musicians. The seven-character vocal ensemble is mostly women and tenor voices.
Umphrey focuses on the ambiguity in the opera as a point of tension and sees Bly House as its own malevolent character, she said. Although the title is never sung or spoken during the opera, the idea of making a bad situation worse permeates the work.
The music, although sparingly orchestrated, is a mix of styles in a 20th century treatment which uses both tonal and atonal techniques and refers to earlier styles like the French Overture to create a commentary within the music itself.
“It’s the old housekeeper speaking about tradition and why she is shocked that these ghosts are showing up. So he goes back to a very archaic musical style,” Ditlow said.
Britten is a diverse composer writing children’s pieces to ominous operas like “Peter Grimes” and “Turn of the Screw.”
“It is his most atmospheric music and also his most compactly written score,” Ditlow said.
Britten uses very modern techniques, but “its dissonance only adds to the frightening storyline,” Umphrey said.
Ditlow has collaborated in six of Britten’s operas, 10 of his song cycles and a few of his chamber and solo works.
“I love his music very much. I know a good representation of what the man wrote, and I admire his compositional skill and his musicianship. It’s just amazing,”Ditlow said.
This is the first opera she has both conducted and coached the vocalist.
Often conductors are brought in a few weeks from the production, but Ditlow was present from the beginning.
“I am proud to present it to the public. Also the piece is so good, it just energized everyone involved,” Ditlow said.
The opera is one of the most modern operas produced at UNM in the last four years.
“I think that if we program concerned about the audience then we are not doing our job. We are not doing our job as artists, and we are not doing our job as people being creative...I am hoping that we get as many curiously minded students and perhaps faculty from the non-music department area,” Ditlow said.
She is in the process of writing a book in this opera and will give a pre-curtain lecture the hour before each performance.
“I’ll be talking about how the piece was constructed, and I’ll keep this tuned to an audience that likes going to concerts and enjoys really good film and classical music,” Ditlow said.
The opera opens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Keller Hall and continues through Friday and Saturday with a matinee on Sunday.
Aubrie Powell is a culture reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AubrieMPowell.