On Tuesday, 22nd May I participated in my last opera scene at the Royal College of Music. It was so much fun and I learned so much from the process and from watching my talented peers.
I sang the role of Governess alongside Marcella di Garbo as the ghostly Miss Jessel.
Henry James who wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1897 lived at that time in Sussex in a big Country house. He was interested in ‘spiritual phenomena’. Telling ghost stories at the time was a tradition during the Christmas holiday festivities. James had been told an anecdote by the archbishop of Canterbury of a couple of young children haunted by ghosts of a pair of servants who wish them ill. In the story the evil spirits of Miss Jessel the previous governess and Peter Quint formerly the valet try to lure the children to their deaths to get their souls.
The ghosts in the story are only visible to the Governess. Are the ghosts a figment of her neurotic imagination or is she the plucky saviour of her charges from damnation? This decision is usually left to the audience member to decide.
A new challenge that we both had to face together was singing in corsets for the first time. This is because our Director Stuart Barker placed our scene from Turn of the Screw in the middle of the nineteenth century, (fitting the original plot). It was fashionable at this time to wear a corset underneath your blouse/dress. Corsets during this period were shaped like an hourglass but were made longer to cover the hips. Luckily for singers, modern corset designs became more flexible, with less boning. This allows for a little more movement when breathing, but still, we have to adapt to the obvious restrictions still maintained by the design.
To make this work for me I had to be sure that I didn’t breathe out during my fitting, although I must admit that is was very tempting at the time. Luckily my singing teacher Rosa had warned me to take in a big breath during the fitting so that the corset allows for the expansion of the rib cage which is so important when singing.
When wearing a corset some movements become more restrictive such as bending over, (I was very careful not to drop any props!) and when changing levels from standing to sitting. This was very interesting and luckily our wonderful costume mistress Alice Lessing allowed us to take the corsets to our stage rehearsals to practice. In keeping with this theme, Alice recommended to us to put our shoes and tights on before being fitted into the corset, as bending down to do them afterward is quite a task. This proved a very handy tip!
I personally found singing in a corset quite helpful, it encouraged me to sit and stand upright helping me to maintain good poise and posture. It also gave my character a sense of control and seniority, which was useful as I wanted to depict my character as a strong and determined Governess who could be trusted to look after the children of the house. The corset also gave me something to feel, as I could sense my muscles expanding and contracting during my vocal line helping me to focus on supporting my breath evenly, which in turn helps to create a sustained legato line. All in all, it was a very valuable lesson and one that has given even more to think about when performing in costume.
But don’t get me wrong, I was quite happy to take it off during my breaks from the performance and I’m glad that they are no longer a staple of modern fashion.
In the scene the ghost of Miss Jessel actually appears in my school room from outside along the passages and the stairwell. ‘The room is mine, the children are mine, be gone you horrible, terrible woman!’ I then take up my pen to write of my concerns to the guardian of the children telling him I have something I must tell him about even though he has warned me not to disturb him.
61 thoughts on “Turn Of The Screw – Final Opera Scene at the RCM”
Lovely, thanks for sharing this Charlotte. You look lovely as well!
Thank you Holly 🙋🏼.
To you too!
Corsets… phooey! (lol) Looks and sounds as though, in spite of your own little personal jail, you had a grand time. In the end, that is all that matters. <3
I’d love to do the full opera, it’s a great story. I liked exploring it as the child Flora last year and the neurotic, Governess who sees the ghosts this year, great fun.
You know how to style and profile. I am sure your performance was spot on.
The costumes were fabulous weren’t they. Under the really bright lights my complexion was too pale and Stuart said I looked more ghostly than Miss Jessel so I had to colour up a bit 😄. Marcell’s Make up was brilliant.
What an interesting experience, dear Charlotte! I have never thought that a corset might be such a tricky thing!
Breathing correctly is so important when singing without any amplification I wondered if it would affect that but it didn’t so that was good.
Hmm…how do you think if singing in corset might tune the voice upper or lower? I suppose it could be!
Methinks the director is dotty. If you put on a show involving singing as a major component, you don’t go inhibiting the cast’s ability to do so! (He should try wearing one – it is the main reason women of that era swooned so much!)
I think they must be specialist corsets specifically purchased for opera without the hard boning and lacing that some other corsets seem to have. When I buy dresses for recitals it’s the first thing that I test that I can comfortably inflate my lungs and expand my ribs whilst singing. I just wanted to reassure other singers that this type of corset is quite easy to sing in. I agree anything too tight or restrictive would be unmanageable.
How wonderful, Charlotte!
As a costume designer who has used corsets in period work, I especially appreciated your willingness, understanding and utilization of this necessary undergarment.
I also compliment your designer for the tips she gave you, and the looks you have presented here.
The corsets were actually a lot easier to wear and sing in than I’d imaged, they must be specialist stock for opera productions without the hard boning nor too tightly strung.
I’ve had such costume variety at the RCM, from a child’s dress and apron with plaits, to trousers, men’s waistcoat and a powdered wig, to a wedding dress! My Flight controller uniform and finally this bustled skirt, corset, blouse and waistcoat. I adore dressing up and the costume designers are amazing here.
I even checked if gummed envelopes were around in those days to know whether to lick the envelope after I wrote the letter or not 😀. It’s been a blast I have many happy memories.
You are the real deal! In the film world we call the actors who do as much research into realism “method”. I’ll always remember Holly Hunter wanting the real keys in her purse when she had to unlock a door. Cheers to you!
So were pre-gummed envelopes used then? My guess is, yes, since I recall an account of a duel (probably antedating TotS) being fought over whether a correspondent had licked his envelope to seal it or not. O tempora, o mores! I’m impressed (once again) that you checked this tiny detail. Research is a huge part of my work, and I respect it in others.
jguenther good question do you know when the duel was? When I checked the story was set in the 1840s in Bly, Essex. The writer of the letter was the Governess, I read at that time in England hand-made envelopes were all that was available and they were usually folded in on themselves or sealed by wax. A patent for the first British envelope making machine was granted in 1845 but the flaps were to be sealed with adhesive, wax or ribbon/string. It was 50 years later that gummed envelopes were commercially produced. I figured at her pay level her stationery would be wax sealed or folded inside to seal.
Re old envelopes: You’re right, the letter would have been folded closed. Sealing could have been done with folded tabs or, more likely, with a simple small dab of sealing wax without much embossing, if any.
Opera is spectacle, so appropriate costumes are vital to the production. as are singers who appreciate and coordinate with the designer’s art and effort. Nicely done!
I absolutely agree, I took textile design at High School and appreciate the research, planning and work that goes into costume, it is a wonderful art form.
Interesting insights on the effects of wearing a corset, which I’m sure not many people do nowadays.
In the Frankfurt production of The Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint first appeared behind a smoky sheet of glass in a tower, so it wasn’t clear if he was really there or if it was just her imagination.
I well remember that scene where the ghost of Miss Jessel appears in the school room (and also the one where Flora, played by Emma Gardner, shocked the governess by insisting that their little pond was called The Dead Sea).
That’s interesting about the Frankfurt production ours were only scenes so minimalist staging as several scenes were sung one after the other in an hour and a half.
Miss Jessel is an interesting character too, it is suggested she committed suicide by drowning because she got pregnant by Peter Guint during an affair.
All my best wishes
Charlotte, how wonderful for you. Sounds like a lot of work to sing in a corset.
Always a learning experience, too. Good luck on your new adventures,
Whilst writing my replies to comments today I thought I must keep a little book from time periods to show costumes I’ve worn, attitudes and social norms of each era etc. Hopefully my blog will come in useful for this if I start to tag better.
I’m still to choose the outfit to wear for my recital on Monday, yesterday I selected a summer dress because it’s been so hot this week and the weather turned bad 😁.
All my best wishes
Very nice – and very interesting – thanks a lot for sharing ans congratulations !! Wish you the best my friend !
Thank you Pascal 😀. Glad you enjoyed the post.
All my best wishes
Congratulations, you look like you had a lot of fun. I’m sure it’s sad to have that part of your life come to an end, but I’m sure you’ll go on to even greater things opera wise.
It was great fun, in the scene I’m emotionally distraught and fearful. She is in flight mode and initially wants to run away from her role, but unlike Miss Jessel she decides she must stay to protect the children. In real life I’m pretty cheerful most of the time, very optimistic and look for good things in situations, where the Governess sees problems, worries, and upset. Quite a good challenge.
Next up I’m Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide, a completely different character and one I’m loving discovering at the moment.
It sounds like it must have been a lot of fun. I hope you’ll be able to share a bit of the plot of your new role in a future post.
Brilliant! So what was your take, playing the Governess: is she sane or not?
Good question Deborah, when I played Flora I was of a mind that the Governess was insane, that she was trying to create a reason to pull the Uncle back to Bly from London because she was attracted to him and she was bored and wanted more from life.
Playing the Governess I felt she was sane, when she saw the ghostly figure of Quint she described him to the housekeeper with a description Mrs Grose recognised as the dead valet. The mystery around Quint’s friendship with the young boy Miles and Miles dismissal from his boarding school for misbehaviour made me question if someone could be possessed. Miles said he wanted to bring his Uncle back to Bly to convince him to put him in another boarding school so I wondered if Miles had just got another servant or a woman from the village to dress up to scare the Governess into finally writing to the Master because the ghostly Jessel had threatened the Governess to take Flora away with her.
Now in real life I think the Governess is psychotic, and lonely and imagined or hallucinated the ghosts to give in to her desire to bring the charming Master of the house home in order for him to fall in love with her.
All my best wishes
You must be a little sad to have come to the end of your time at the RCM.
The stories and experiences you have shared with us all, have been wonderful..
So,, keep on blogging , onwards and upwards to a wonderful career which you absolutely love.
Good luck with everything you do, I have no doubt your name will be in lights soon .xxx
Yes I am a bit sad because I like structured learning and the facilities here are fabulous, but I intend to continue on with my studies privately, I’ve just passed a German exam and aim to take a higher level next, I’ve planned to keep myself busy whilst auditioning for work. Thank you for your good luck and I can’t wait to see you next week.
All my best wishes
I endorse everything said above Charlotte and have no doubt whatsoever that you will be a star! 😘😘
You’ve always been so positive and a great support Gill 💕.
All my best wishes
What an amazing role for you to take on. This truly shows your versatility. I’m so happy for your success! It must be difficult trying to sing in a corset, but with the weight I’ve been gaining – I could use one! 🙂
Hehe another good reason for a corset. Cunegonde my next role from Candide is a totally different character i’ll tell you all about her soon 💃.
I’ll look forward to it.
I’ve really enjoyed watching you chase and live your dreams. This must have been an awesome experience! I love all the costumes too! How fun! Keep on living big Charlotte! Hugs to you. Koko 🙂
Thank you Koko lovely to hear from you xox.
Hugs to you too
You look gorgeous, Charlotte and I’m sure your performance was, too! I hadn’t thought about corsets and singing. Is that why early sopranos were, well, somewhat overweight? To make room in their corsets for lung expansion?
Trying to get this comment to ‘take!’ You look absolutely gorgeous, Charlotte, and I’m sure your voice was, too. I’m wondering about those corsets (hadn’t occurred they would be a problem) – maybe why the earlier opera singers were , well, a little overweight was to get more room inside their corsets for lung expansion?
Good question Noelle at the moment I’m considered a light lyric coloratura and sing lots of soubrette arias, the voice often changes to a different fach with weight, childbirth, and age for example.
I was told the governess is often cast as a full lyric and I can get warmth in my tone in order to sing these roles but sometimes these roles demand a fuller timber it’s just the choice of the casting director. My current teacher Rosa has been a marvellous help in safe vocal development, I trust her and take her advice.
It’s been interesting age 14-18 I was singing mezzo soprano which is a lower range, I’ve been gradually getting lighter and more agile even though my body weight has been pretty consistent from the age of 16.
All my best wishes
Fantastic post, Charlotte! I loved the details you have given about the dress fittings and you certainly looked the part. Congratulations on performing in your last opera scene at the RCM!
Thank you Clare I’m in final preparations now, last night I was putting the finishing touches to a program booklet for my final recital on Monday.
All my best wishes
Best wishes for that, Charlotte!
Ouch…this sounds painful. I’m very happy you passed this challenge. I like the subtle colors of the Set; Marcella’s makeup is haunting… almost Zombie-like. Congratulations.
The make up was great wasn’t it, well thought out too as Marcella is Italian and has a darker skin tone than me it would be sufficient to white powder her and bronze me up the specialists at College really know what they’re doing.
The colour changed for each set of scenes, very subtle but clever.
Sounds a fantastic show. You look amazing in costume. I’ve read Turn of the Screw but can’t for the life of me remember much about it. Think I’ll fish my copy from the shelf and add it to my year in books collection 🙂 xx
Definately worth a re-read. You’ll have to let me know if you think the Governess could see ghosts or was mentally unstable.
The book is very word dense and enigmatic. I think reading second time around, that the governess was a little unstable. She comments something bad has happened within her family, which could have instigated her break down. What did you think? x
Those costumes are wonderful, Charlotte and you really look right for the part! It has been quite some time since I read Turn of the Screw. I imagine I will re-read all of them when I have some time to sit and enjoy them properly. Reading Shakespeare even in an evolved secondary school like mine, still was the endeavor of a teenager. I think it is time to revisit the classics! Hugs …
I hope you do get chance to revisit the classics, I know what you mean at school I didn’t appreciate selected reading material, but now having to revisit Shakespeare and Turn of the Screw makes me appreciate more. I recently re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I didn’t appreciate it as a child but I loved the book more on the second reading. Hugs to you too.
Uh-oh. I don’t know what happened to my comment! LOL, anyway, brava! xx
I’m glad the corsets weren’t as difficult as you might have thought. What great photos.
Thanks Alex I hope you’re keeping well.
Gee. I’m thinking that “Singing in Corsets” might make a lovely opera. I could be written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and you could do the Sarah Brightman role. Tim Curry could co-star Tim Curry, in a corset, of course. I’m sure it would be a huge hit on the West End.
omg, do I know how to write or what. That was sposed to be: It could be written by Andrew Lloyd Weber…Tim Curry could costar as Henry James in a corset, of course.
I am a fan of Henry James’s novels and short fiction – wasn’t aware that “The Turn of the Screw” had been made into an opera. Love the Victorian look!
Spooky! I love that in your performance the idea of the governess as being an unreliable narrator is also (like the book) left open for the audience to interpret.