His 'Flora' was young, beautiful, precocious and intelligent. She was working as a child in The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and consequently knew all his operas and ballets even 'Gloriana'. She was special! Britten employed her for four years and watched the child grow into a beautiful young women. When she was eighteen Britten asked her parents if he could 'get to know her better'. 'Flora' was Britten's 'Gigi'. Although 'Flora' was flattered and indeed 'loved back' the age gap and certain other problems prevented it from being anything other than an adolescent romance.
'Flora' wrote to Britten's biographer Humphrey Carpenter and he encouraged her to write a memoir to show another side of this fascinating but complicated, secretive composer. This has yet to be published. Looking at the famous 1959 Associated Rediffusion UK Television production of 'The Turn of the Screw', which is available from the UK National Film Archives it is not difficult to understand why Britten fell for this young and beautiful 'Flora' . Britten said she 'sparkled'.
In 1953 a ten year old Janette Miller was taken to see the coronation opera 'Gloriana' by Benjamin Britten at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The opera was not a success and was withdrawn the next day but the impression left an indelible mark on Miss Miller. From that moment she wanted to be on that stage. Three years later she was as the first child to appear in a Royal Ballet production of 'Petrushka'. As she could sing a bit she was sent for an audition. She had one song 'The Fairy Pipers' with actions, a musical hall number of dubious origin and this she sang for the greatest living British classical composer. He never bated an eyelid or showed that anything was amiss. The young girl recognized Britten from his photo in the 'Gloriana' programme and told him how much she had enjoyed it. She got the job. 'Mrs Sem' in the first performance of 'Noyes Fludde' at Aldeburgh in 1958 along with the young Michael Crawford.
Although her part was small, just two solo lines, Janette made something of an impression. She entered into the spirit of the work and Britten noticed her. He chose her to appear in the final Wagner Concert as a soloist like a young Charlotte Church and accompanied her himself. She was a 'hit' and was the 'star' of the Festival. Michael Crawford for once and probably the only time upstaged, was heard to remark 'The audience certainly seem to like her!'
The Turn of the Screw
Ever since the first production in Venice in 1954 Britten had been unhappy with the casting of 'Flora' the strange little girl in his opera based on the Henry James novella 'The Turn of the Screw'. He had auditioned over 40 little girls and eventually 'made do' with a small soprano of 50. Although she was more than acceptable vocally Britten was unhappy with the casting and swore that he would never allow 'The Screw' to be performed again until he found a young 'Flora' and for years he stuck to his word.He needed a young intelligent small 15 year old who could cope with the extremely difficult music he had written and with the sexual connotations of the novella.
He invited Janette to learn the role and he got to know her personally. She went to his flat in St John's Wood and she sang for him and talked to him for hours about opera and ballet, art, Mahler, Schubert and motor cars. He told her how he wanted 'Flora' interpreted. He seemed obsessed with 'Flora' as if she were the most important character. Boy sopranos were two a penny but the girl! 'Flora' was the problem and still is today! Eventually he cast her in the UK TV production by Peter Morley that is perhaps the definitive recorded production of this work. She became known as 'Flora'.
For the next three years Britten watched his 'Flora' grow up and instead of the usual dumping that so many of his young male friends experienced Britten found he enjoyed the company of this now beautiful young, gifted woman. He kept her playing 'Flora' long past her sell by date as she grew much too tall.
When 'Flora' was 18 Britten behaved like a young lover with his first girlfriend and then his male partner found out! Even this did not stop Britten and he asked her parents for permission to play court! Her father was not amused and warned him off! Even when 'Flora' could no longer sing the role as she was taller than 'The Governess' Britten insisted she was on the pay role and saw to it personally that she was well treated inviting her to the 'Red House' alone to swim, play tennis , talk about opera and ballet and take china tea. She was given festival tickets for every performance and joined in the Royal occasions.
But it could not be. 'Flora' was too young and sensible. The age gap too large. They drifted apart except for Christmas cards which eventually stopped. 'Flora' married a real 'Miles', Dr Miles Heffernan,and went on to live and produce serious opera and ballet in New Zealand but she never forgot one of her first serious male admirers.For the next 20 years she kept this to herself.
'Flora' thought she was a 'one off' but on reading the official biography she discovered Britten's behavior to other women and she realized she was not alone. Britten obviously had a 'soft spot' for women that is not generally admitted. If for nothing else Janette Miller's place in posterity will be assured as Britten's first young 'Flora'. If you look at her photos Britten certainly had good taste!