by Todd O'Dowd
Ever since it began in 1963 as Center Opera, Minnesota Opera has been on the forefront in developing and championing new modern operatic works. Thanks to its New Works Initiative, it has worked tirelessly to commission and perform new works to add to the operatic repertoire; a stellar list that has included Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s The Manchurian Candidate and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, Douglas J. Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, the co-commissioning with Santa Fe Opera the premiere of Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s Cold Mountain, and more; including next season’s world premiere production of Dinner at Eight. But the Initiative might have scored its biggest triumph yet with the world premiere of Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell’s The Shining. While at first blush Stephen King’s iconic modern-day horror novel might seem an odd choice for an opera, Moravec and Campbell have created a thrilling addition to the modern opera repertoire aided and abetted by one of the strongest productions Minnesota Opera has created in its fifty-three year history.
By now, most of you should know the plot of The Shining. Set in the early 1970s, the story sees the Torrance family – father Jack (Brian Mulligan), mother Wendy (Kelly Kaduce), and their son Danny (Alejandro Vega) – moving into the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies to serve as the caretakers for the off season. Right away the hotel’s cook Dick Hallorann (Arthur Woodley) recognizes in Danny that he, like Hallorann, possesses telepathic abilities (“the shining” as Hallorann explains it); and it’s these abilities that allow Danny to notice all of the unusual activity going on at the Overlook. The hotel is haunted by ghosts from without (including all of the people who have died there over the years) and within (as Jack fights his own abusive tendencies and his alcoholism). Eventually the ghosts push Jack’s buttons and what started out as cabin fever turns out to be something far more sinister.
If this sounds slightly different from The Shining that you know, it pays to keep in mind that the opera (like the 1997 television miniseries) is based directly on King’s 1977 novel (and parts of his excised prologue for the novel Before The Play) and not on Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s screenplay and Kubrick’s subsequent 1980 film. Whether or not you agree with King’s distaste for Kubrick’s film, I have to agree that the novel works in terms of being a better source material for an operatic adaptation. Though it too easily shifts the blame for Jack’s bad behavior from himself to outside malevolent forces, the fact is that the novel opens up more possibilities for an opera by including such characters as former caretaker Delbert Grady (David Walton) who went mad and killed his family and himself, Horace Derwent (Alex Richie) the perverted original owner of the Overlook, and Jack’s abusive father Mark (Mark Walters) who started the abusive cycle Jack finds himself on. All of this gives Paul Moravec room to create an atmospheric score. While Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score for the Kubrick film created its shocks with electronic techniques of sound looping and distortion combined with music by Ligeti, Bartók, and Penderecki, Mr. Moravec has taken a slightly more romantic approach to his score; pulling influences as diverse as Brahms, Dvořák, Verdi, Copland, and the film scores of Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo and Rebecca in particular) to create a swirling effect to capture the vastness of the Overlook and the Colorado Rockies it inhabits. As the ghosts start to take over the story, the score starts to get more angular with uses of twelve-tone writing and some Philip Glass-esque writing for the ghosts; particularly in the Act Two ballroom scene, where the atonality runs smack against the lushness of the 1930s Big Band music he has created for the scene. While this sounds highly technical, the net result is that the score easily conveys to the audience the consuming unease that permeates the story. Meanwhile, Mark Campbell’s libretto is spot on. While it is unusual to see Mr. Campbell again doing another libretto for a Minnesota Opera commission, the fact is that he is that good of a librettist. As he proved in Silent Night and The Manchurian Candidate, he is brilliant at cleanly adapting a story for the conventions of opera and he is a genius in creating librettos that tell the story yet are extremely singer friendly.
Thankfully, Mssrs. Campbell and Moravec’s opera is in great hands with this production. Minnesota Opera’s music director Michael Christie teases out every drop of atmosphere and drama in the score while still being attentive to his singers at all times. Director Eric Simonson and his production team (choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble, scenic designer Erhard Rom, costume designer Kärin Kopischke, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, and animation and production house 59 Productions) have created one of the most sumptuous and startling productions I have ever seen Minnesota Opera attempt. From its first images of the shifting projected mountains to simulate the drive to the Overlook Hotel, this is one of the most ambitious physical productions in the company’s history and the risks they take pay off big time; creating some gorgeous stage pictures and some genuinely terrifying moments (such as the first time we see “redrum”). The thing that I most appreciated was with its sliding discreet boxes and its projected wallpaper pattern that would swirl when scenes changed that it gave a sense that the Overlook Hotel itself was menacingly alive. Even little touches like the projected snowstorm seen through the windows of the front door or the stocked to the teeth pantry and kitchen gave the whole production an ironclad sense of reality. Even the ghoulishly fanciful costumes for the ballroom scene managed to combine reality with the gruesome glee of an Edward Gorey cartoon.
Of course, all the scary stage pictures and atmospheric music mean nothing if the performers can’t rise to the occasion, and all of the principal players do. Baritone Brian Mulligan is perfectly cast as Jack Torrance; using his naturally warm stage presence to show us a man trying to do right by his family and his hulking physicality to show the audience a man possessed to the point where we not only fear for his family, but for his very soul. The fact that we can still feel empathy for Jack as his demons (both internal and external) drive him to desperate means is a testament to Mr. Mulligan’s fully committed performance. Equally committed, but on a slightly lesser plane is Kelly Kaduce’s Wendy. Don’t get me wrong – Ms. Kaduce is a brilliant singing actress and is capping off a three opera run at Minnesota Opera with a warm, physically demanding performance; nimbly handling all of the demanding physical work she has to do in Act Two while still commanding the stage with her gorgeous soprano. And it must be noted that she and Mr. Mulligan have a palpable chemistry on stage that clearly shows the love the Torrances have for each other even as their relationship literally goes to hell and even through some demanding and terrifying fight choreography they have to perform later in the show. But my issue is simply a matter of voice. As she proved in her earlier triumphs this season in Tosca and especially in Rusalka, Ms. Kaduce is a true lyric soprano and much of the role of Wendy is so declamatory that it doesn’t show off her voice at its best. It’s when she has long phrases that she can shape – such as in her opening duet with Mr. Mulligan, her lullaby to Danny, and especially in her soaring aria “I Never Stopped Loving You” – that Ms. Kaduce’s silvery soprano is allowed to take flight. Again this is not a knock on her performance at all; the role of Wendy is the audience surrogate in showing the true terror of the situation and Ms. Kaduce’s performance makes that terror uncomfortably real. It’s just a case of an aspect of the role not showing off the performer to their absolute best. As for the rest of the cast, Mark Walters was physically menacing if vocally underpowered (at least in the performance I saw) as Jack’s abusive father Mark, David Walton was deliciously suave and twisted as the ghost of the former caretaker Delbert Grady, and there was fine work from Alex Ritchie, John Robert Lindsey, Shannon Prickett, and Jeni Houser. And once again, the Minnesota Opera Chorus was in fine form as the various ghosts haunting the Overlook while deftly handling some of the tricker moments in the score.
As good as the company was, I saved the best for last as Arthur Woodley and Alejandro Vega easily tie for best performances of the night. While I cringed as Hallorann sang to Danny to “Shine On” in his Act One aria, and while I thought the entire epilogue was a little too long for my tastes dramatically, Mr. Woodley turned both of these moments into spellbinding showstoppers. His warm on-stage presence and committed acting combined with his sumptuous bass-baritone added gravitas and moral heft to a role that in the wrong hands could have been a trite mess, but that he turned into a triumphant, vivid performance. He is a compelling performer that Minnesota Opera should bring back again soon. (My vote would be to see Mr. Woodley as the elder Germont in La Traviata – his “Di Provenza” would be magical – with Ms. Kaduce as Violetta.)
While Mr. Woodley got the second loudest applause at the performance I saw, the loudest ovation of that night went to Alejandro Vega who dominated the show as Danny, the Torrance’s haunted son who knows better than anyone what is really going on at the Overlook Hotel. It is he that carries the emotional weight of the show and his highly physical performance does just that. Mr. Vega deftly conveys all of the conflicting emotions in his character and manages to do a neat trick when he sings. When he’s possessed by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel (voiced by the offstage chorus), he flattens his singing voice to the point of having no vibrato. When he confronts his father near the end of Act Two, his natural vibrato comes back. I can tell you that’s a very tricky thing to do correctly as a singer and the fact that he can pull this feat off so effortlessly while still keeping the energy of his performance going is a testament to Maestro Christie’s coaching, Mr. Simonson’s direction, and Mr. Vega’s own impressive talents.
Opera fans have wondered for year what it will take to get newer audiences interested in the art form. While there are a ton of ways to approach that debate, the idea of bringing newer stories to the art form is solid – provided they are done well. In adapting Stephen King’s iconic novel for the operatic stage, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell have created a genuinely fantastic retelling of The Shining that manages to translate all of the novel’s horror in tact. And thanks to one of the most inventive and ingenious productions Minnesota Opera has ever produced, the tale of the Torrance family is well on its way to haunting the operatic world for a long time to come!
Minnesota Opera’s production of The Shining continues through Sunday, May 15 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts; located at 345 Washington St in St. Paul. Performances will be Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $28 – 200 and can be purchased at the Ordway’s box office, or on the Minnesota Opera website. As of this writing, the rest of the run is sold out, but this would be one occasion where trying to find a ticket by any means necessary is called for.
Photo Credit: Ken Howard for Minnesota Opera