photo by Ken Howard
On paper, Minnesota Opera’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining sounds like a lot of fun. And the public has responded. All four performances of The Shining are sold out, bought by folks eager to see what redrum and mayhem will sound like in a blood-curdling soprano.
It is said that unhappiness lies in the gap between expectations and reality, however, and I suspect that many people are going to leave the Ordway feeling vaguely unhappy, if only because this operatic version of The Shining isn’t as spooky or terrifying or musically awesome—indeed, nearly as much fun—as they had hoped.
Granted, I saw The Shining last Thursday night at the final rehearsal and so-called “social media” preview, a canny PR move Minnesota Opera has implemented to maximize buzz and minimize criticism. It’s not fair to come down too hard on a show that hasn’t technically opened yet. It’s also not fair to treat a work-in-progress like a final production. And despite the fact that its “world premiere” was Saturday, The Shining—a product of MN Opera’s New Works Initiative—is still a work in progress, albeit one with mighty impressive production values.
The expectations gap I’m talking about has nothing to do with whatever subconscious comparisons people will inevitably make to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic movie version starring Jack Nicholson. That’s not fair, either. Anyone who expects an operatic stage adaptation of The Shining to look, sound, or feel anything like the movie is either ignorant or misinformed. No, the issue is that on its own terms, MN Opera’s The Shining is a problematic mash-up of storytelling clichés, adaptive challenges, and operatic conventions that don’t fit very well together—at least not yet.
Some of it works. The hotel set is spectacular, with moving white panels that morph into different configurations and upon which all kinds of atmospheric images are projected, including plenty of ghostly visages and artful pools of oozing blood. And, as Jack’s mental state deteriorates, so too does the hotel, which is a compelling visual metaphor for the symbiotic relationship between the hotel and Jack’s brain. At the beginning, Jack and Wendy seem more like a regular couple as well, which makes Jack’s decline feel more tragic. And Wendy herself is a much more sympathetic, wifely character. She’s basically an Everywoman trapped in a relationship with a violent, raging alcoholic, and she has nowhere safe to go—a situation far too many women can identify with.
The music, too, has moments of elegiac beauty and explosive tension, though not nearly enough of it. Even the performances—by Brian Mulligan as Jack Torrance, Kelly Kaduce as his wife, Wendy, Alejandro Vega as their son Danny, and Arthur Woodley as the cook Hallorann—are laudable, given the material they have to work with. (Kaduce in particular has some beautiful, heart-rending moments.) All the elements have yet to jell, however, and the fault, I think, goes back to the original source: Stephen King’s novel.
Librettist Mark Campbell based his libretto on the novel, not the movie, which are two very different things. Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson amped up the terror and craziness and bloodshed, while the book itself is a somewhat more subdued account of one man’s descent into madness via his fondness for the bottle. In the novel, child abuse and alcohol addiction are the primary themes, and Jack Torrance himself is a much more conflicted character, torn between his love for his family and the destructive pull of his addiction, which manifests itself in a hotel full of ghosts and demons.
Unfortunately, stripped of its narrative heft and reduced to its basic plot, The Shining is a silly, didactic, simplistic story, and the Outlook Hotel is little more than an elaborate haunted house. The opera version of the plot unfolds far too mechanically, ticking off the contrivances that strand the Torrance family in a mountain hotel with a peculiarly testy boiler that will blow the family “sky high” if it isn’t bled twice a day. The characters are sketched out, but not exactly developed. And the boy’s extra-sensory “gift” is explained in songs and seizures, but—with the exception of a truly disturbing bathtub scene—its true spookiness is left mostly to the imagination.
Another aspect of The Shining I think people will find disappointing is the lack of identifiable “songs,” and the curiously dissonant and underwhelming presence of the hotel’s chorus of ghosts. Roughly ninety-percent of the entire show is talk-singing. Much of this sprechgesang is technically virtuosic in a way that only a true opera fan can appreciate, but coupled with so much insipid dialogue, it looks and sounds a bit ridiculous. No one is going to go home and listen to Paul Moravec’s score, either, because there is precious little in the way of soaring arias and other operatic thrills, save for the occasional howl of anguish from Jack and/or Wendy. The score is mostly mood music that bubbles and froths and swirls around the dialogue. There’s plenty of demonic tension, and the party scenes have a jazzy, cabaret vibe, but it’s as if the music is trying too hard at times to overcome the opera’s other structural deficiencies, and too little at times when it’s needed most.
As Jack Torrance, for instance, Brian Mulligan stalks the stage with plenty of lumbering menace, but his marvelous baritone is rarely unleashed in its full glory. Which is puzzling, because if ever there were a man caught in the grips of “operatic” anguish, it’s Jack Torrance. And while the chorus of ghosts in the hotel is an amusingly decadent and surreal bunch, they only figure in the action at a couple of key junctures, and their collective vocal firepower goes all but entirely unused. It’s not hard to imagine a hotel full of ghosts adding a powerful and otherworldly punch to the mix, or even a Wagnerian howl or two from the depths of hell. But the chorus remains oddly restrained for most of the show, leaving the three main actors to do most of the heavy lifting.
Finally, the production team should consider mixing in a few more comedic moments to break the tension and add a much-needed layer of humor. There are a few such moments, but there need to be more, because the current version takes itself a bit too seriously. This is Stephen King we’re talking about, and one of the reasons King’s books are so popular is that he isn’t afraid to joke around a little and have some fun. MN Opera’s The Shining taps into the spirit of King’s novel much more respectfully than the movie, but it needs to tap into the other side of King’s persona as well—that of the shameless entertainer.