On Site Opera will present Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, at Wave Hill, a stunning 28-acre historic estate and now public gardens in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, from 25 to 27 October 2019.
This operatic ghost story is perhaps the perfect piece to benefit from an immersive production. Its story will unfold in various locations around the estate, both indoors and outdoors, with the audience following the characters from place to place.
I asked On Site Opera’s director, Eric Einhorn, how the project came about.
The Turn of the Screw is a piece that Geoff McDonald (our music director) and I have wanted to produce for several seasons. As with all of our productions, we take our time scouting venues and finding the right partners. When we entered into a partnership with Wave Hill, we knew we had found a wonderful venue and collaborator.
The grounds and historic mansion provide the perfect setting for Britten and Piper’s psychological drama of ghosts, paranoia, and possible violence. All of the space at Wave Hill inspired our creativity and lead to a production plan that takes audiences on a literal journey around the grounds, just as the Governess experiences.
The Governess will be played by soprano Jennifer Check. It will be her role debut.
It’s been a role on my radar for a very long time and is on the bucket list of roles for me.
I first met Jennifer in 2009 when she sang the role of Madame Lidoine in a production of Dialogues des Carmelites that I was directing for Austin Opera. I still remember vividly the first time she sang through her aria in rehearsal. It was an incredibly moving experience. Jennifer and I then had several occasions to work together at the Metropolitan Opera, further cementing her place on the list of artists I wanted to bring to On Site. When Geoff McDonald and I were casting, both of us were very excited about the idea of casting Jennifer in the role.
It’s not her first brush with Britten, having sung both Lady Billows and Mrs Wordsworth in Albert Herring. However, Britten is never an easy sing. Check says,
The Governess, and really the entire opera, are perfectly written. Britten gives you everything on the page. Dramatically, she is complex. The trick is not letting the drama take you away. I have to remember to stay grounded and not get too hysterical. There is drama in the stillness. We have found something really special dramatically and it has changed my feelings about her.
Audiences will gather outside by lantern light before the opera begins, then several characters will accompany them to Wave Hill House, where the story will unfold in three different locations. I asked Einhorn how that functions with musicians in tow.
Geoff has done some fantastic planning regarding how and when various combinations of the orchestra are featured before audiences are treated to Britten’s full orchestration.
I wondered if Check was preoccupied about confronting her first ‘on site’ opera, away from a traditional performance space?
I have seen their work and have worked with Eric and Geoff in other houses. There are always certain difficulties that come up in a non-traditional setting, but if I’m being honest, they don’t matter as much as you would think. It opens us up to use the entire space. I can actually look out a window at the surroundings. It heightens the drama for everyone.
But there must be differences?
The biggest challenge so far has been remembering that I don’t have to turn out and sing to the front of the house. The audience still has contact even when our backs are turned!
Check will find that she’s singing to a ‘full house’ as the performances are sold out, though Wave Hill does have a waiting list.
We are extremely lucky to have such amazing, loyal patrons who create sold-out performances – says Einhorn – We are working to adjust our producing model to allow for more performances. Our revival of Amahl will play six times (rather than four as it did in 2018) and our new production of the musical Das Barbecu will have nine performances.
Who are your loyal patrons?
Our audiences represent a wide cross-section of people, from experienced opera-goers to fans of the venue to people just looking for something new. No matter what brings people to OSO productions, the reactions are always very similar. People are blown away by the power of intimate, immersive, site-specific opera. The proximity of the performers and the incredible venues add to the audience’s positive experience. It’s been wonderful to see familiar audience faces return show after show. We truly have a wonderful patron family!
Is it just that audiences are looking for something new, or is there perhaps a deeper motive?
I think both artists and audiences are looking for more engaging models of performance. The artists involved in On Site shows frequently speak about the incredible opportunity intimate productions create for connecting with audiences. There is something uniquely thrilling about being so close to the audience, to the point where the music literally vibrates in their bodies. Likewise, audiences are looking for more experiential performances. Providing an opportunity to see riveting opera in amazing, non-traditional spaces gives audiences another layer of engagement with the material that you can’t find anywhere else.
You must be gratified to see your productions sold out, but as there are obviously a limited number of places for such an event, how do the economics of the venture pan out?
On Site Opera operates like most non-profit arts producing organisations in that ticket sales represents a relatively small percentage of income. The majority of our funding comes from donations from our fantastic patrons, as well as from many generous foundations and government organisations.
I wrote about you production of Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro three years ago.
The Portugal Figaro took the level of immersion to new heights. Audiences entered the venue to find the world fully alive with the opera’s characters and could interact with all of them before the opera began. Audiences responded really well to this, which allowed us to continue to explore new immersive techniques for subsequent productions.
And last year there was Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors in a soup kitchen.
That production proved to be more powerful an experience than anyone anticipated. The production marked our first collaboration with a community partner in the social service sector: Breaking Ground – NYC’s largest provider of supportive housing. Together with Breaking Ground, we created a community chorus from their resident population of those impacted by homelessness. The participation of the chorus connected directly with our modern retelling of the story, which was set in the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. The production was so well-received we decided to revive it this season!
On Site Opera obviously aim for the spectators to have shivers running up and down their spines during The Turn of the Screw. Will Check feel the shudders too?
When we sing roles, we become those characters for that period of time. We live the drama just like the audience does.
And now that the Governess can be ticked off your bucket list, are there any other Britten roles to add?
Absolutely! Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes and Female Chorus in Rape of Lucretia.
But now, after The Turn of the Screw, what’s next for Jennifer Check?
Lots of notes! A Donizetti Queens concert, Fiordiligi at the Met, Maria Stuarda and some Verdi Requiem and Beethoven 9th thrown in for good measure.
In bocca al lupo!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.