Preview: Against the Grain’s ‘indie opera’ take on Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw


Camellia Koo’s atmospheric design for Against the Grain Theatre’s Turn of the Screw.

Opera director Joel Ivany and his gang of bright young things at Against the Grain Theatre walk the knife edge between the conventional and unconventional in their upcoming production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera, The Turn of the Screw.

It opens on Thursday for a four-performance run at University of Toronto’s Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

The fledgling company’s claim to fame is a production of La Bohème set at the Tranzac Club, one of the bumsprung, ramshackle hubs of Toronto’s fringerati.

By mixing professional talent with a truly bohemian modern-day setting, Ivany & Co. showed that opera can be not only relevant but perfectly satisfying beyond the bounds of a traditional stage.

It was a brilliant aesthetic choice — and a classic example of inspiration born of necessity.

“There’s no way around it; opera costs a lot of money,” says Ivany, smiling wrily as we walk along St. George St.

The group most recently sold out Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins as a piece of performance art at Parkdale’s music-friendly Gallery 345.

But the U of T venue for Turn of the Screw is a small, traditional theatre, boxed in by Georgian windows trimmed in nearly a century of Boston ivy.

Is Against the Grain going mainstream?

Ivany replies that he did his best to find an non-traditional venue that would evoke the psychological claustrophobia of Henry James’ 1895 novel. He wanted something like Spadina House or Fort York.

“But our schedule coincides with Doors Open weekend, and all the venues said no,” Ivany explains.

Once again, necessity intervened.

“We’re going to have the audience enter via the fire escape at the back,” the director says. “With the ivy and the view of Hart House, it sets the right aesthetic.”

Rather than use the theatre’s regular stage area, Ivany has laid the action out over a long, narrow strip that divides two facing sets of 42 seats. Access to the seats is via the set, which should help patrons become part of the story before it even starts.

Period costumes, a few pieces of furniture, two doorways and atmospheric lighting conceived by Camellia Koo and Jason Hand are meant to do the rest.

Britten’s score, set in motion by a recitative Prologue with colourful piano accompaniment, prepares the audience for the once-upon-a-time journey back to Bly, a country house where the Governess struggles to keep her charges Miles and Flora from the clutches of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, two ghosts of household employees past.

Although it is called a chamber opera, the description applies to feel more than length. The Prologue and two acts — containing eight scenes each — run a full two hours.

Miraculously, the full scope of the novel survived librettist Myfanwy Piper’s episodic structure — which is aided by musical interludes that introduce each coming scene.

Ivany, whose most recent mainstage credit in Toronto was as Robert Carsen’s assistant director in the Canadian Opera Company production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, has worked on Britten’s operas before.

“Once you get into knowing his music, it sticks like glue,” he says. “Everyone said you should do Turn of the Screw,” which has been a staple of the British repertoire since its premiere.

It was the first opera to be seen on independent television, announced Lord Harewood in his introduction to the 1959 broadcast.

Music director Christopher Mokrzewski will spend the whole time at the piano, as there was no budget for Britten’s small orchestra.

But the cast, employed under Equity rules and scale, cuts no corners, featuring Miriam Khalil, Michael Barrett, Megan Latham, Betty Alison, Johane Ansell and a treble from the Canadian Children’s Opera Company as Miles.

Ivany describes the whole enterprise as “indie opera.” Besides helming the production, he designed the postcard adverts and is responsible for making the budget stretch to cover any eventualities.

It’s a lot of work for little financial reward. But, he points out, the creative team is not beholden to anyone else’s ideas or vision.

“There’s no reason to do it other than because you really want to,” he smiles.

For more details on the production, and to order tickets (which start at $40), click here.

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As an introduction to the opera (and a fine way to spend a holiday Monday), here is a fantastic production recorded last August at Glyndebourne. Toby Spence is Quint, Mia Persson the Governess, Giselle Allen is Miss Jessel. The London Philharmonic is led by Jakub Hrusa:

John Terauds

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