When the call went out for four teen opera singers mature enough – in voice and mind – to star in the operatic thriller The Turn of the Screw, New Zealand Opera's general director Thomas de Mallet Burgess admits to a degree of trepidation.

After all, says de Mallet Burgess, even Benjamin Britten, the opera's acclaimed composer, reportedly struggled to find a young girl capable of portraying Flora, one of two children who appear to be enthral to, and about to be corrupted by, two wily ghosts.

The highly accomplished Britten's answer was to age the character a little so Flora is sometimes sung by a youthful looking adult soprano. Rather than resort to that from the outset, de Mallet Burgess, who took the reins of NZ Opera in 2018, decided to put aside his trepidation.

He says he'd already been given the option of continuing with the opera, based on Henry James 1898 horror novella, which had been tentatively programmed by outgoing general director Stuart Maunder. But having spent five years with Perth-based company Lost & Found – who aim to present unusual operas in equally unconventional spaces that reflect the tone of each work – de Mallet Burgess isn't one to shy away from a challenge.

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Anna Leese - is she playing with fire in The Turn of the Screw? Photo / Michael Bradley
Anna Leese - is she playing with fire in The Turn of the Screw? Photo / Michael Bradley

He opted to proceed with The Turn of the Screw confident that the right youngsters would emerge: "It's always interesting to go into something on a wing and a prayer … so we opened up expressions of interest but I knew without the right youngsters we might we in trouble…"

He needn't have worried. Some 37 expressions of interest were received to play Flora and Miles – two singers for each role making a total of four - alongside an all-star cast of Anna Leese, Jared Holt, Madeleine Pierard and Patricia Wright. Of those, 13 finalists spent a day at NZ Opera's Parnell headquarters seeing if they had the right stuff.

De Mallet Burgess says it's evidence of a lively interest in opera among New Zealand youngsters and demonstrates the depth of talent out there. The successful applicants Alexandros Swallow, 13, Lukas Maher, 12, Alexa Harwood, 17 and Olivia Forbes, 18, not only had the voices but proved capable of accessing the range of emotions needed for an opera described as a chilling ghost story saturated with menace.

And some adult themes. Indeed, it might star children but this is not an opera for children with NZ Opera recommending it for those 15 and older. There's a chaperon with the talented quartet in rehearsals and de Mallet Burgess says, as director, he's been conscious of letting the children lead discussions.

The cast of The Turn of the Screw. From left - Alexandros Swallow, 13, Alexa Harwood, 17, Olivia Forbes, 18, and Lukas Maher, 12. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The cast of The Turn of the Screw. From left - Alexandros Swallow, 13, Alexa Harwood, 17, Olivia Forbes, 18, and Lukas Maher, 12. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"But let's not forget that opera is not divorced from the reality of the world and our experiences as humanbeings," he adds, saying that the opera considers how adult behavior impacts young people's lives – surely an extremely pertinent and contemporary theme – how we deal with trauma, the expectations we place on youth and even fake news.

"How do we trust what we trust?" he asks.

The story follows a young governess, played by internationally acclaimed kiwi soprano Leese, as she leaves the UK bound for New Zealand and a remote country house to care for two children, with only written instructions from an absent guardian who warns that he is not to be contacted.

Things take a turn for the unnerving when the governess – she's never named – discovers young Miles has been expelled from school for "bad behavior" which is hinted at rather than expressively described. Disquiet turns to foreboding as the governess hears stories of two former, now deceased servants, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who she comes to believe are not only haunting the children by attempting to corrupt them.

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But is it moral panic or truly ghostly goings-on making the governess so troubled? What is real and what are the imaginings of a troubled mind? James' novel didn't make it clear and Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper opted to leave it open to interpretation.

For their part, Swallow, Maher, Harwood and Forbes say it's an excellent opportunity for them to work alongside some of our leading singers as well as take child roles the likes of which aren't usually seen in opera.

The Turn of the Screw, The Opera House, Wellington, October 3 and 5; ASB Waterfront Theatre October, 18, 20 & 23.