Sunday, April 21, 2013

Memories of Basil Coleman opera director pas excellence

I learned today of the death of Basil Coleman, the brilliant opera director who was a favourite of Benjamin Britten and directed many of his operas including the one that has had a profound influence on my life The Turn of the Screw which premiered in Venice in 1954. Many musicologists consider this work to be Britten's masterpiece and certainly Basil Coleman's input must have contributed to this ground breaking production.

It seemed I had the good fortune to be directed by Coleman for the 1961 Aldeburgh production of this work. I played Flora. I wish I could say that this had been a happy experience but for me at 18 it was one of the most difficult productions I have ever been in.  Aldeburgh was not the place for a young girl alone. Aldeburgh just did not understand young girls and in fact I was just ignored.

My problem was that I was not Coleman's choice of a Flora. I was Britten's and Coleman had to make do with me. Britten and Coleman had very different ideas as to the importance of Flora. Britten realised that Flora is not just a side kick of Miles but a person in her own right. Coleman dismissed Flora and wanted all the focus to be on the boy.

I had already played Flora for the famous Associated Redifussion
1959 performance on British Television which had been a great artistic triumph. I was Britten's choice, Britten knew I understood Flora. Now I was 18 Britten and I talked about Flora for hours.

It was not that Basil did not like me personally he just did not want me in his production and made me feel inadequate. He told me that I had to take a back seat, that in the TV production I had moved to much and he did not want me distracting from the boy in anyway. I was a professional and I did exactly what I was told.

At Aldeburgh I was given virtually no rehearsal. The boy's scenes were rehearsed daily while mine were left alone. What Basil didn't know was that I was a Britten favourite. It seems now that I was the only 18 year old girl in that category and I told Britten. He was furious and came down to rehearsal, played for me and saw I was rehearsed.  To see Britten taking such an interest in me had not been anticipated. The sight of Britten publicly driving me home alone in his car took them all by surprise. This came as a shock.

Aldeburgh could be unwittingly cruel. On the day of the first performance I was walking down the high street and a bicycle fell on my foot. The brake handle went right through it like a nail and I could see it sticking out the other side. With great presence of mind I pulled it out, like an arrow. It did not bleed immediately and it did not hurt so I walked across to the Jubilee Hall where the first person I encountered was Basil Coleman.

I told him what had happened. He was talking to Stephen Reice the manager and they were having a heated conversation about should Flora look at the Ghost! This was the one direction that seemed to change everyday as everyone except me was allowed to have an opinion. Britten directed me to look at the ghost and Coleman wanted the opposite.

Instead of looking at my foot which was now starting to bleed profusely these two men marched me up onto the stage and redirected the scene. After five minutes they were satisfied and Basil looked at my bleeding foot and said "Oh look Janette is bleeding all over the floor cloth. I think you should get that looked at" and both men left me.

I found the local GP who said it was nasty and that tomorrow it would hurt. I refused a tetanus jab because of the side effects and I walked the miles home. In the evening a car was reluctantly sent with a furious Mrs Reice who was not amused. She felt I should have cycled  I did the performance with out a limp and in fact no one ever knew. I have the scar till this day.

Britten again was not amused at the change of direction behind his back and I was back to looking at the ghost the next performance. Britten tended to the view that the ghosts were real.

When I did get to see the long lost TV production I was terrified of seeing my performance and how distracting I had been. I was in for a shock. Far from fidgeting I had had long periods of absolute stillness. Basil had been wrong. He had seen what he wanted to see not the reality.

I did meet him again in the BBC club when he was directing Billy Budd.  I was working  in a play He got a surprise to see me there and he looked slightly embarrassed and guilty. He knew he had given me a hard time. Directors can. We parted friends and in fact I learned from this experience. Always try to be the director's choice.

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