By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006
The vexing and intricate novella "The Turn of the Screw," force-fed to students in high school and college, has dissuaded several generations of readers from any further interest in Henry James. The story is so often used as a pretext to explore dense literary concepts -- "the unreliable narrator," for example -- that it has become one of those books that many people remember only in its dissection.
All of which is unfair both to young readers and to James, for "The Turn of the Screw," despite its credentials as a bona fide ghost story, is not for the kiddies. It is the tale of a newly appointed governess, who may or may not be going mad, and her ghastly experiences with her two deeply mysterious charges, Miles and Flora. It is a study in fog and nuance -- a literary puzzle that eludes any definite solution.
But if "The Turn of the Screw" is not for everybody, it is very much for some people, among them the late composer Benjamin Britten, who created a chamber opera from the book in 1954 with the help of librettist Myfanwy Piper. Tomorrow night, Lorin Maazel will conduct a fully staged and costumed performance of the Britten work at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
When Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, comes to town, he regularly sells out the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which has some 1,900 more seats than the Terrace. And when Washington goes to the opera, it is usually to the Kennedy Center Opera House, which seats nearly as many as the Concert Hall. Maazel conducting a complete opera at the Terrace? You might as well wait to hear the Rolling Stones at the 9:30 club.
There is a story here, of course, and Maazel did his best to relay it into a telephone amid the clatter of a crowded restaurant in Amsterdam the other day. "The Turn of the Screw" will be produced by the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Series and Maazel's own Chateauville Foundation, which he founded with his wife, Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, in 1997 to "nurture children, foster art and reclaim the human spirit." The opera's cast will be made up of young artists who have participated in the foundation's programs.
The Chateauville Foundation has its headquarters on the Maazel estate in Rappahannock County. A theater on the property has presented more than 60 performances to date, featuring a diverse and stellar array of artists -- pianists Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman, tenor Jose Carreras, flutist James Galway, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and actress Claire Bloom, among many others.
"As I grow older, I am more and more concerned about bringing young people into the arts -- into dance, theater, opera and other disciplines," said Maazel, 76. "We had a school on our property for five or six years, where the arts were an integral part of the curriculum. Our students would come to school and, instead of the Lord's Prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the day, they might sing folk songs under the direction of a professional voice teacher. It was wonderful, but there was too much demand and it grew too crowded and we had to close it down."
But programs continued to be offered, including classical and jazz concerts, readings and lectures. "But one thing we have never done is opera," Maazel said, "and I thought it was time to change that. And so we are bringing young people who are interested in music and young people who are interested in theater and young people who are interested in costume design and stage design together to work on an art form that combines all of these elements: opera."
"The Turn of the Screw" was prepared and rehearsed over the past couple of months and first performed for a private audience on Maazel's property. The opera is scored for 13 instruments, with six cast members, including Anne Dreyer as the Governess, Jeffrey Lentz as Peter Quint, Tucker Fisher as Miles and Jessica Moore as Flora.
"It is a masterpiece from first note to last, one of Britten's most inspired works," Maazel said. "There isn't a moment where the interest flags. And, as in the story, you are never sure whether the governess is crazy or whether everybody else is. It's all wonderfully vague. But all of this would be totally irrelevant if the music were not as fine as it is."
He ranks Britten among the three great composers of the 20th century, along with Stravinsky and Sibelius. "Wait. Let's also include Bartok. Make that four ."
Maazel considers this improbable Kennedy Center performance part of his foundation's outreach. "We want people to know something about what we are doing out in Virginia," he said. "We may bring our work to Europe, too, where there is great interest in what we are doing. It is so terribly important to involve children early, so that they feel the deepest possible connection to the arts."
That connection is something Maazel has felt from childhood. Born in 1930, he was a child prodigy who made his conducting debut at the age of 8. Three years later, he led a special concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra that won the approval of the group's own legendary music director, Arturo Toscanini. He joined the Pittsburgh Symphony as a violinist in 1948 and became its apprentice conductor a year later. He came to world attention in 1960 after becoming the first American to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. From 1972 to 1982 he was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and he has also served as the artistic director and general manager of the Vienna State Opera, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony and, since 2002, the music director of the New York Philharmonic.
"I am exactly between my first concert and my last concert of my contract with the New York Philharmonic," he said. "I have been there 3 1/2 years and I have another 3 1/2 years to go. It's a stunning orchestra, and we seem to have been made for each other."
Yet Maazel continues to fulfill freelance engagements. In January, he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in an all-Richard Strauss program. "I loved working with those musicians," he said. "That was quite an unforgettable visit. What a wonderful [performance of Strauss's] 'Metamorphosen' they played for me. . . .
"I'm a fair-weather conductor and I go where the weather is good. And the weather is certainly good with the NSO."