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Cynthia Simonian


Perhaps the best research proj-ects are created when two interests are brought together. Such is the case with Cynthia Simonian’s current endeavor, which combines her love for reading with musical composition. In her project, Cynthia analyzes Benjamin Britten’s operatic interpretation of Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. She presented her research at the 2002 Undergraduate Research Symposium, where she used a multimedia slide show and audio presentation to point out musical themes from the opera that served to interpret the story’s plot. Cynthia encourages others to discover and develop links between different fields. She plans to pursue a second baccalaureate in Music Composition at UCSB.triangle.gif (504 bytes)




Literary critics of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw have tended to take one of three interpretive positions regarding the role of the young governess who comes to a mansion to care for two young children, and there becomes convinced that the ghosts of the former valet and governess are attempting to morally corrupt the young ones. The first interpretation, often referred to in James criticism as “the first story,” states that the young governess is defending the children from the evil embodied by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The second interpretation takes the opposite position, which states that the governess is imagining the ghosts, and is herself the greatest danger the children face. The third view is that James purposefully makes the story ambiguous by not allowing the reader to decide between the first or second views. Benjamin Britten’s opera, The Turn of the Screw, makes a case for the third interpretation by using musical themes that at times seem to support the governess’ innocence, and at other times, to imply her guilt. The listener is left in the same uncertain position as Britten’s governess, and is not allowed to easily decide who is good or evil. Unlike the governess, who cannot bear the uncertainty of not knowing whether she is innocent or guilty, and who tends to leap to explanations blaming the ghosts or herself, the listener is challenged by an opera which does not allow for such solutions. triangle.gif (504 bytes)

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Faculty Mentor                                                                                                                
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Robert W. Newsom

School of Humanities

Cynthia Simonian’s essay goes far beyond the familiar task of analyzing how a composer of opera adapts a literary text and translates dramatic and thematic elements into music. Taking advantage of a longstanding controversy among critics of James’ famous ghost story—a controversy that questions whether it is in fact ghosts that James is describing and not a repressed governess’ erotic hallucinations—Simonian argues that Britten’s music adopts a third interpretation that has emerged from the debate. This complex critical position contends that the text is insistently ambiguous and far more unsettlingly leaves the question undecidable. In her rigorously argued analysis, she shows that Britten’s opera is best viewed not as mere adaptation, but rather as a highly wrought work of interpretive criticism. triangle.gif (504 bytes)

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Copyright 2002 by the Regents of the University of California.  All rights reserved.