“Could the Governess be the villain?” I remember how these words brought a smile to my face during my first semester of my final degree. I was learning two roles simultaneously due to a rash of role vacancies in the undergraduate fall opera that year. Owing to my familiarity with Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw,” (Mrs. Grose had been the second role of my operatic career) I happily but nervously agreed to take on the role of The Governess.
If you are unfamiliar with one of Britten’s masterpieces, based on an 1898 horror novella by Henry James of the same title, allow me to summarize the plot for you. Spoilers ahead: A young unnamed woman (our Governess) has received a letter offering her employment at the very isolated Bly Estate, during the nineteenth century. She will be alone with just the two children and the housekeeper and is a bit nervous. When she arrives, Flora and Miles are lovely, Mrs. Grose will be such a blessing, and all is well… or so it seems for a short time. Enter Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel, the former valet to the man who had hired her, and the governess who had been there before but died under mysterious circumstances. That’s right! They are both ghosts! And they wreak all sorts of havoc, from luring Flora away out by the lake, to encouraging Miles to be disruptive and distracting during lessons. During all of the visitations, however, the children refuse to admit that they see or are being influenced by anyone. The Governess must fight for the souls and the lives of the children she was only expecting to educate and care for. In the end, Flora is saved but Miles dies in her arms.
Having been in music rehearsals for about a month, our director decided it might be time to sit down and discuss WHO we were and WHAT this opera was trying to say. We had been sitting around talking about our characters, my fellow colleagues and I, in Britten’s “Turn of the Screw,” when the question came up. Peter Quint was surely to blame. Miss Jessel was certainly up to no good, but is it her fault? There is something wrong with Miles. What about Flora’s actions are strange? Is Mrs. Grose malicious in some way or just willfully ignorant of what is happening in the house? No one thought to look at the poor lead with any suspicion until the director asked. As my colleagues became quiet to consider this question, he explained further that, “We don’t know what happened before The Governess arrived. Maybe everything was fine. Does anyone acknowledge that they are seeing what The Governess is seeing? If so, where?” Having performed this opera before, albeit as the supporting mezzo role, I thought back and realized that The Governess could, in fact, be hallucinating the ghosts! And isn’t it strange that she is so in love with the children’s guardian whom she has never met? So in love that she moves away from the city she knew to a remote estate called Bly to live with people she’s never met in the hopes that he will be so moved by her devotion to his wards that he would come and marry her? Suddenly, this nameless character exploded off the page with all she had wanted to say. I read the libretto over and over, I studied the melodies and cadences of the composition, and I found a woman who, while not a villain, could hold the attention of any psychologist, amateur or professional. And when I looked around at the roles I would now be playing since transitioning toward soprano, I found a world of interesting women who are often played as bland, as a two-dimensional plot device. I found a world of characters I wanted to wake up.