When Minnesota Opera announced it was adapting Stephen King’s The Shining, I was momentarily horrified—an entirely appropriate response seeing as The Shining without horror would be just another vacation in the Rockies.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, though, the creative team is not, in fact, trying to turn a movie into an opera. Rather, it’s using King’s 600-page novel as the project’s original source material, and entirely eschewing Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film version, which took so many liberties with the story that King, who has already approved the Opera’s version, denounced it.
This means that certain iconic moments from the movie will not be included. For example, the lead baritone will not stick his head through a door during a homicidal rampage and yell, “Herrre’s Johnny!”—a scene Jack Nicholson improvised. Instead, says librettist Mark Campbell, audiences will see an emotionally intense adaptation that more accurately reflects the spirit of the book. And in this regard, he says, “the movie isn’t much help.”
“Opera is a completely different form,” says Campbell, who also adapted The Manchurian Candidate for Minnesota Opera. “The emotions have to be more passionate and intense, so I try to identify the emotional peaks and find ways to allow the music to express those emotions through the characters.”
The key difference between the book and the movie, however, is the psychology behind the father’s behavior. King hated the way Kubrick stripped away his central character’s emotional vulnerability, reducing Jack Torrance (played in the movie by Nicholson) to a garden-variety psychopath. In the book, however, it’s clear Jack is a victim of sexual abuse, and that the main demon he’s fighting is his impulse to inflict these same abuses on his own son.
“I really wanted to honor the novel, so when I found out that Jack was abused by his father, I decided to make the father a character in the opera,” says Campbell. (Dad comes back as a ghost.) “Most operas are about love, so the theme I kept coming back to is that only a strong family love can overcome generations of abuse. Jack is a more sympathetic character in the book, and even kind of a hero. A messed-up hero, but a hero.”
The layers of the book that were stripped for the movie might be the ones that give the opera version an intriguing new depth and feel. Music is the ideal medium for communicating both emotional turmoil and spooky tension.
It’s not difficult to imagine Jack, torn between his love for his son and the impulse to kill him, howling an anguished aria of rage and despair. And powered by a full orchestra and chorus, the hotel’s evil spirits could be the most acoustically diabolical entities we’ve seen in a long time.
The Shining may also be one of King’s most “operatic” stories, in the way that it covers lots of big themes: love, death, power, control, and self-destruction, not to mention that it has a relatively high body count. Indeed, many of the qualities that make King a popular writer are cornerstones of opera.
“While there’s always high art in good storytelling, opera isn’t meant to be high art—it’s a populist art form,” says Campbell. “My goal is to have people of all kinds come to the Ordway, experience a remarkable emotional journey with these characters, and leave the theater thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t know opera could be that much fun.’”
The world premiere of The Shining runs May 7–15. The Ordway, 612-336-6669, mnopera.org