Henry James: Stories of Style and Substance

by Olin Chism

The writer Henry James once claimed to be “unlyrical, unmusical, unrhythmical, and unmanageable.”

It’s remarkable, then, that his fiction has inspired operas by several prominent composers: Dominick Argento (The Aspern Papers), Benjamin Britten (The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave), Douglas Moore (The Wings of the Dove) and Thomas Pasatieri (Washington Square).

Why did they turn to a self-described “unmusical” writer for their librettos? For one thing, James was a masterful story-teller, and a good story is at the heart of most successful operas.

The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw (which became the most famous James-inspired opera) are excellent examples of the writer’s talent and skill. Both stories are compact (The Aspern Papers is slightly less than 100 pages long; The Turn of the Screw slightly more). Both are what modern readers might describe as “page-turners,” maintaining suspense from first page to last. These are not tales you’re likely to mentally put aside overnight.

James wrote that he got the idea for The Aspern Papers from an anecdote related to him by a collector: The man hoped to gain possession of papers left by the poets Shelley and Byron by befriending Byron’s aged ex-mistress, Claire Clairmont. He rented rooms from her in Florence, then discovered that there was a condition attached to the possession of the papers: He had to marry Clairmont’s middle-aged niece. Unwilling to take that step, he abandoned the quest.

James adjusts the story slightly. He sets it in Venice rather than Florence. Shelley and Byron become one fictional poet, Jeffrey Aspern, an American. The collector becomes the story’s narrator, an obsessive and unprincipled scholar and biographer who’ll do just about anything to get his hands on the papers (in a climactic scene, the enraged old lady calls him “you publishing scoundrel!”) The Turn of the Screw was inspired, according to James, by another story told to him, this time by no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury: A young governess is hired by an absent uncle to care for two young children on a remote estate. She becomes convinced that the children — a brother and sister — are being corrupted by two evil ghosts. Eventually, the sister flees the estate to be with her uncle and, in a climactic struggle of wills between the governess and one of the ghosts, the boy loses his life.

One element that unites The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw is their ambiguity. In the former, James never makes it unequivocally clear that the papers actually exist, or if they do, what ultimately happened—or will happen—to these documents. The narrator thinks he knows, but what if his source has embellished the truth or resorted to an out-and-out lie?

The Turn of the Screw has inspired more literary/psychological theorizing than any other Henry James story. Are the ghosts real, or are they the product of the fevered imagination of a genuinely neurotic governess? Freudian theorists have had a field day with that one.

There’s no strong evidence that James thought of The Turn of the Screw as anything other than a gothic ghost story—a genre of which he was fond—yet the debate rages on and will probably never be settled, barring the discovery of some now-unknown revelatory papers by the author himself (Aspern-style).

In the James-inspired operas, the music serves chiefly as a means to convey the atmosphere in which the action takes place. Music is not particularly good at conveying facts: i.e. are the ghosts real?  Do the missing papers or music score exist?  However, it can be extraordinarily important in setting the psychological tone of a work. Britten’s music is downright spooky; Argento’s music is highly effective in establishing a sense of the personalities and the relationships of the various characters within The Aspern Papers.

Just as James tweaked the original anecdote, Argento made several noteworthy changes in creating his opera.

For one thing, he made Aspern a composer and the papers an unpublished opera. Argento explains: “I couldn’t quite believe the character of Aspern as an American poet, but I could imagine him as a composer; there’s something very romantic about that.” Argento believes that America didn’t produce international-class poets until the mid-19th century; the fictional Aspern flourished nearly a generation earlier.

Another change is that Argento sets the opera on the shores of Lake Como rather than in Venice. He explains that a garden filled with blooming flowers is a significant place-element in James’s story, adding, “I can’t think of very many gardens in Venice” (Argento, an American, has spent considerable time in Italy); whereas, Lake Como is known for its beautiful gardens.

He also points out a musical connection: Lake Como was a popular gathering spot for early 19th century composers, bel canto singers and impresarios.

The most significant change from novella to opera is the introduction of several scenes that take place early in the 19th century, with Aspern as a singing character (he never actually appears in James’ novella), his former mistress (the elderly opera diva) as a young woman, and several new characters and plot elements. Argento has explained that pragmatism played a role in that decision: concluding that a three-character full-length opera “would impose intolerable wear and tear on the singers’ voices, not to mention a certain amount of tedium on the listeners’ ears.”

The Aspern Papers was commissioned by the Dallas Opera, which gave its world premiere on Nov. 19, 1988 with Frederica von Stade, Elisabeth Söderström and Richard Stilwell in leading roles. With today’s cast, which includes mezzo Susan Graham, soprano Alexandra Deshorties, baritone Nathan Gunn, tenor Joseph Kaiser, bass Dean Peterson and mezzo Sasha Cooke, the risk of aural “tedium” would have to be calculated at slim-to-none.


(Olin Chism is a long-time observer of the Dallas/Fort Worth music scene, currently writing and reviewing for “Art and Seek” at KERA.org.)

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