Family is complicated. On the one hand, our loved ones can hold up a flattering mirror of inspiration, and collaborate in creating traditions and invented culture based on trust and understanding. On the other, there’s . . .
Stephen King’s brilliance as a novelist begins with a writing style that is remarkably fluid when he’s on his game, but there are two other factors that have made him one of the greatest of his time: an unwavering dedication to the interest of the underdog, and a keen and achingly sympathetic understanding of emotional hurt and an uncanny ability to depict it.
This is why his 1977 novel The Shining started him on a course of literary ubiquity that lasted until the great bookstores began to fall—his story of a nuclear family in isolation in a grand hotel over a punishing winter was scary as hell, yes, but it also plotted the claustrophobia of a family in pain and the demon-riddled descent of its father with a precision and compassion that made the pages turn to see what would become of these people’s hearts.
The world premiere adaptation of the work at the Minnesota Opera delves deep into this emotional terrain, nicely finding the story’s core of fear: not of the supernatural (though there’s plenty of that), but of what lies within tormented Jack Torrance (Brian Mulligan), a man who is haunted by his abusive childhood as much as the various specters from the Overlook Hotel’s past.
The action is on slow burn for much of the night, like a well-paced chiller. Erhard Rom’s scenic design is largely spare and antiseptically lit in the domestic scenes (though the set is far from austere; big pieces move and reassemble, and breathtaking projections move the action from the mountains to the phantasmagoric), and scenes simmer with Jack’s mounting internal tension and the apprehension on the part of his wife Wendy (Kelly Kaduce) that things are going to go terribly wrong.
She’s right of course, and at the end of each of the two acts the tension ratchets impossibly, the ghosts appear, and composer Paul Moravec’s score soars into a realm that manages to articulate the real horror of King’s novel: the horror of the past, and how it haunts the present.
Mark Campbell’s libretto serves up the sweet side of a wrecked family in the form of an aria proclaiming love that Kaduce delivers to heartbreaking effect. But it’s in a quieter moment when we feel the walls closing in, with Mulligan’s Jack calmly singing to his family: “Look, if anything ever happened/to the two of you/I could never live with myself/But without this job/We’re done/Done/It’s our only hope/If I fail at this/We’ll never recover/Never/Capiche?”
It’s easy to understand why Stephen King famously loathes Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of his novel (one of my favorite films): It paves over these delicate emotions, these filigrees of love and loyalty beneath the pain and the mayhem. In King’s telling, the truth beneath hurt is complex, aching. This remarkable opera conveys just that.
Read a preview of The Shining and an interview with librettist Mark Campbell here.