A perennial criticism of classical music’s concert culture is the rigid format that tends to isolate the performers on stage. Rarely is a connection forged between the audience and the performers, and even more seldom does the venue itself play a key role. The inflexible conventions governing modern performance customs are not likely to change soon, though many organizations who seek to reinvent the concert experience in the Twenty-first Century are experimenting with alternatives to the concert hall and opera house altogether.
With this in mind, as part of its new artistic vision, Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) is inaugurating its Opera Annex, a plan to present operas at alternative venues, providing new insights into the works. Early in February, the company will stage Benjamin Britten’s haunting The Turn of the Screw at The Castle at Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers. The Castle was built in 1891 as an armory and stands charmingly out of place just south of Boston Common. BLO’s general and artistic director, Esther Nelson, believes that the freshness of the Annex productions will help reinvigorate opera’s presence in Boston and attract newcomers to the art form.
This strategic thinking illustrates a much-needed pragmatism lacking in many opera companies. By taking aim at the problem of declining audiences and employing a creative solution, the company could make significant headway in appealing to a larger demographic. The primary deterrent to opera is its longtime association with bourgeois, highbrow society. By removing the symbolism of the opera house, BLO is showing that opera is hardly a status symbol, but a living, breathing art. Orchestras confronted with similar audience declines have begun to experiment with various multimedia approaches to programming, with varied success. Opera lends itself naturally to such experiments and this production innovatively explores these possibilities.
Unlike an opera house, the Castle’s architecture reflects the setting of Britten’s opera. Indeed, before the story takes a perverse turn, the character of the Governess perceives Bly, a country estate, as a “castle of romance” that would “take all color out of storybooks and fairytales.” In contrast to a typical proscenium stage production, with the normal trappings of this Victorian-era opera, stage director Sam Helfrich lets the Castle speak for itself, employing an otherwise minimalist set. While drawing more focus to the psychological drama at hand, this approach elegantly emphasizes the grandeur of the setting and establishes an intimate connection between the audience, the singers, and the orchestra.
Another unique feature of the production that owes its inspiration to the venue is the use of a live video feed from elsewhere in the Castle. Using video in opera is not a new technique, but its centrality to this production is particularly intriguing. A projection will show offstage characters in the Castle’s gloomy basement, adding another dimension to the audience’s perception of both the narrative as well as the space.
The Turn of the Screw is a complex psychological drama based on an 1898 novella by Henry James. An English governess enlisted to work at Bly suspects that a deep-seeded depravity has corrupted the two children in her charge and senses the apparitions of two former servants haunting the estate. Britten’s setting of this story has long captivated audiences and the vast Castle’s interior should prove an evocative setting for this chilling opera. The design of BLO’s production attempts what most operas aim for but rarely accomplish—a complete artistic experience. Moreover, despite leaving behind the opera house, even a purist can appreciate the power of such a setting to transport.