‘The Shining’ and Other Opera Thrillers and Chillers

A scene from the horror-thriller-turned-opera materpiece, The Shining
A scene from the Minnesota Opera's horror-thriller-turned-opera masterpiece, "The Shining." (Photo: Ken Howard)

Perched in the Colorado Rockies in the dead of winter, the Overlook Hotel is the setting for Stephen King’s 1977 breakthrough novel The Shining. It is during the off season at the vast resort that King’s fictional aspiring writer, Jack Torrance, takes up residence with his wife and son. He hopes to work on his latest opus in the peace and quiet, with minimal responsibilities as caretaker of the presumably emptied-out hotel to distract him. 

The horror-thriller masterpiece inspired the 1980 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick that many fans consider the most frightening film ever made (even if King himself was unhappy with the changes).

But The Shining as an opera? Minnesota Opera, based in the Twin Cities, is proving just how powerful the combination can be. The Shining, with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and libretto by Mark Campbell, opened May 7 and has sold out the entire run of its world premiere production.

The Shining
A scene from the Minnesota Opera’s “The Shining.” (Photo: Ken Howard)

Defying Convention

Minnesota Opera has become one of the most forward-thinking companies on the scene, with a track record for producing new operas over the decades. The range of premieres is impressive: Operas based on The Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and The Elephant Man, plus such new works as the World War I-era Silent Night and The Manchurian Candidate.

Dale Johnson, Minnesota Opera’s artistic director, recalled proposing an opera in the horror-thriller genre during a meeting back in 2010. “It’s a genre that’s been overlooked in contemporary opera,” he says.

Mark Campbell
Librettist Mark Campbell

With stage director Eric Simonson, he enlisted the much-in-demand Mark Campbell, who had already penned the librettos for Silent Night and The Manchurian Candidate. Campbell also recently adapted the classic film Dinner at Eight into an opera with Grammy-winning composer William Bolcom (to be unveiled in 2017), and he’s writing the libretto for Mason Bates’ highly anticipated The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, an operatic exploration of the Silicon Valley genius, for Santa Fe Opera (also coming to the stage in 2017). 

Opera is basically about three things: Love, death, and power

At a press conference in New York introducing The Shining, Campbell said “everyone knows the film The Shining, so from the start I realized I needed to make people forget about what they know from the movie.” He decided to go back to the Stephen King novel as his main source. There he discovered material that was more suitable for operatic treatment. Along with all its terrifying aspects, “it’s a heart-rending story of a good man who wants to do the right thing but is in the wrong place. He wants to escape the cycle and bring his family to safety,” Campbell says.

Paul Moravec was entirely in agreement. “Opera is basically about three things,” the composer says. “Love, death, and power, and The Shining  has all of these elements.”

Dolores Claiborne
S.F. Opera’s Dolores Claiborne

What’s more, The Shining is the second major operatic treatment of the work of Stephen King in recent years. In 2013, San Francisco Opera premiered  Dolores Claiborne, a new opera by American composer Tobias Picker and poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy. As with The Shining, the creators of Dolores Claiborne went back to the original King novel rather than the film for their inspiration, discovering layers of psychological insight in addition to its thriller aspects.

The idea of mining the horror-thriller genre for opera isn’t an off-the-wall impulse. If you look back at the history of the art form, it turns out that opera composers have been intrigued by the musical and theatrical potential of ghost stories for a long time.

Haunted Operas

In the early 19th century, Romanticism was flourishing in literature before it started seeping onto the opera stage. Literary works (novels and plays) were, after all, a chief source of material for composers to adapt as operas.

Der Vampyr
Der Vampyr

Some of this was a fad that came and went. In 1828, many decades before Bram Stoker immortalized the folk legend of the vampire with Dracula, a German composer named Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) enjoyed a hit in Leipzig with his opera Der Vampyr.  Marschner’s opera, which is still revived on rare occasion, clearly draws on the musical example of Beethoven (who had just died in 1827) and of another German composer, Carl Maria von Weber, who pioneered German Romanticism on the opera stage with an earlier (1821) hit called Der Freischütz (it means “The Freeshooter” or “Marksman,” but refers to demonic bullets that the protagonist has obtained through a bargain with the devil to win the woman he loves through a shooting contest). Tom Waits became so fascinated by the story that he teemed with writer William S. Burroughs for his version, The Black Rider

The Shining goes far beyond the thrills, and plunges into a deeper, graver exploration of human nature and its conflicts

Weber proved how effectively music can contribute to establishing a genuinely spooky atmosphere above all in the scene where the hero is introduced to the devil in the forest during the night. His use of the orchestra is so imaginative that it laid some of the groundwork for a young admirer named Richard Wagner, who went on to revolutionize the entire art of opera.

Wagner, von Weber, and Marschner had other predecessors whose work they built from: Beethoven, for one, who himself wrote just one opera, Fidelio, but whose symphonies stage some of the most overwhelming drama ever imagined.

Mozart also left his mark with his proto-Romantic masterwork Don Giovanni (1787), which mixes comedy and tragedy and includes a ghostly scene in a graveyard in which the lech Don Giovanni encounters the old officer he killed in the form of a stone statue come back to life. For the opera’s chilling climactic scene of the Don being pulled into hell by the statue, Mozart concocted unforgettably hair-raising music that verges on atonality.

Another link between all these figures is the enigmatic genius known as E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), a multitalented artist often regarded as the German Edgar Allan Poe. As a writer, he specialized in tales of the uncanny (he even wrote a story based on his idol Mozart’s Don Giovanni), but Hoffmann was also a composer, and he scored his biggest operatic success with a work called Undine (1816), a very dark treatment of the mermaid fairy-tale.

The idea of mining the horror-thriller genre for opera isn’t an off-the-wall impulse — opera composers have been intrigued by the musical and theatrical potential of ghost stories for centuries

As he was figuring out his path in the 1830s and 1840s and earning paychecks conducting (never enough money to suit his expensive taste), Richard Wagner absorbed all of these varied influences, plus the examples he observed on the French stage while living unhappily in Paris — such as Robert le Diable, an early example of French grand opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer from 1831 which inspired the admiration of Chopin. Despite his disdain for what we might call the Hollywood effects of the grand opera style (and his anti-Semitic bias against the Jewish-born Meyerbeer), Wagner undeniably envied many of its effects and availed himself of some of them in his own operas.

The Flying Dutchman

Like King’s The Shining, Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”), provided Wagner with his breakthrough. Although it wasn’t a big success at first, Wagner himself regarded this work — and he not only composed the score but also wrote the libretto — as the first in which he arrived at his authentic voice. The Flying Dutchman ranks among the most enduring of operatic horror-thrillers. Like Der Vampyr or Undine, it draws on a longstanding folktale source that continues to be exploited (in case Pirates of the Caribbean hasn’t yet come to mind).

The basic story line involves a seaman who has cursed God during a storm at sea and is taken at his word by Satan; as a result, he is condemned to be a kind of maritime vampire, an undead soul who sails endlessly around the globe. Wagner transformed this ghost story into an existential drama about the quest for salvation: the love of a faithful woman is the one thing that will bring his Dutchman peace and an end to his torment.

The Flying Dutchman teems with examples of how the art form of opera can intensify a thriller plot and enrich it with something more than cheap effects. Borrowing some of the vocabulary of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (specifically the first movement), Wagner devised an orchestral language that conjures the brutal violence of nature with uncannily persuasive verisimilitude. A modern heir of this language is Benjamin Britten in Peter Grimes who went on to write two ghost story operas based on the fiction of Henry James (The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave). What makes Wagner’s storm music even more effective is its Shakespearean depth: He turns it into a metaphor for the tortured Dutchman’s psychological state and, by extension, for the human condition of feeling alienated from society. 

Minnesota Opera Season FlyerWhich brings us back to The Shining. What makes Stephen King’s work so resonant is its ability to operate on multiple levels. The thriller plot carries us along, but as Campbell and Moravec point out, the real story goes far beyond the thrills, and plunges into a deeper, graver exploration of human nature and its conflicts. That is ultimately the realm of tragedy, which the philosopher Nietzsche (a close friend of Wagner who later turned against the composer) claimed was born out of the very spirit of music.