A Guide to Horror Operas, for Those Who Loved “The Shining”

This month the Minnesota Opera pulled off a major coup with its staging the world premiere of The Shining—and opera based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Mark Campbell.  The opera was a major success and became the Twin Cities’ hottest ticket, selling out the entire run weeks before the show opened.

Part of The Shining’s success was in bringing out people who were not opera regulars, many of whom expressed surprise that someone would turn a horror novel into an opera.  To those folks I responded, “There’s plenty more where that came from!” Opera has long embraced stories dealing with supernatural evil in all shapes and sizes.

For those newbies who loved The Shining, and are curious to explore similar operas, here’s my top 10 recommendations for “horror” operas to tide you over. Enjoy!

* * *

Birtwistle: The Minotaur This work, which premiered in 2008, is a modern retelling of the famous myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.  And it is dark.  The monstrous, half-man, half-bull Minotaur is imprisoned in the Labyrinth, a maze so confusing that it can never escape.  Minos the king demands human sacrifices from Athens to feed the monster, and the brutal on-stage killings of these innocents are graphic and terrifying. For that matter, so is the climactic duel between the Minotaur and Theseus, the Athenian hero determined to end his menace once and for all.  But perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the opera is the conflicted nature of the Minotaur himself—he is not man nor beast, and is torn by the division.  The music is unapologetically modern, and hugely theatrical.


Britten: The Turn of the Screw This is probably the next logical step to move to from The Shining.  The story comes from Henry James’ famous novella of the same name, which is one of the most literary, psychologically compelling ghost stories ever written.  A governess takes on a new job tutoring two children at a remote, lonely mansion in the country. Once there, she learns the house harbors dark secrets centering around the children.  Like The Shining, this story deals with innocence lost, shadows of child abuse, sexual impropriety, murder and suicide… and phantoms that could be real ghosts of the evil dead, or simply the projections of a fevered mind.


Debussy: The Fall of the House of Usher.  Debussy loved Edgar Allen Poe’s atmospheric story, with its undercurrents of corruption, insanity, and unnatural love, along with its horrifying portrayal of a premature burial. After the completion of Pelléas et Mélisande, he set out to compose a full opera version of the story, going so far as to contract with the Metropolitan Opera for the premiere.  He completed the first drafts of the score in 1917, but the score as whole was incomplete when Debussy died in 1918.  Given the quality of the music, several composers set out to complete the score, based on Debussy’s sketches, including Carolyn Abbate and Robert Kyr in 1977, Juan Allende-Blin in 1979, and Robert Orledge in 2004.  The latter two reconstructions have been staged and recorded.


Gounod: Faust The legend of Dr. Faustus—the German scholar who sold his soul to the Devil in search of forbidden knowledge and power—is one of the most famous stories in Western culture.  Goethe’s German version breathed new life into the story with the publication of his play in two parts (1808 and 1832, respectively), both of which became international bestsellers.  Composers were particularly taken by his poetic vision of damnation and redemption, and soon everyone who was anyone was premiering a new Faust-related work.  Gounod’s opera, based on Part One of the drama, was one of the most successful adaptation of the story; at one time it was the most popular opera in the world. In this work, the scholar Faust grows weary with life and curses God.  The demon Mephistopheles appears and offers to serve Faust here on earth, providing power, knowledge, and a return to youthful vigor.   Sure, there may be a catch….


Meyerbeer: Robert le Diable.  This wild work all but created the genre of Grand Opera—elephantine spectacles with ballet, grand chorus scenes, and state-of-the-art special effects.  Frederic Chopin was in the audience for the premiere, and completely bowled over: “If ever magnificence was seen in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendor shown in Robert…It is a masterpiece…Meyerbeer has made himself immortal.” The story derives from an old Norman legend of a knight who was sired by Satan himself.   The story plays out as the knight, Robert, seeks to find love for himself, while supernatural forces around him battle for his soul.  Blasphemy and witchcraft abound, particularly in the third act when the corpses of nuns are brought back to unholy life to torment Robert.


Mozart: Don Giovanni.  This is a curious work, which is equal parts raucous comedy and supernatural horror show.  It tells the story of Don Juan, a nobleman from Seville whose charisma is matched by his licentiousness.   He is the ultimate anti-hero; in his first moments on stage, he tries to force himself on a noblewoman and ends up killing her father… and he’s just getting started.  Yet for all his outrageous behavior, it is impossible to take your eyes off him, due to his undeniable charm.  Finally his crimes become so great that his first victim arises from beyond the grave to demand that he repent his sins. When Don Giovanni refuses, all Hell literally breaks lose….


Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel.  What an odd piece this is, including elements from the occult, sadomasochistic obsession, orgies, and demonic possession.  Given the controversial nature of its subject matter, it’s not surprising that Prokofiev never saw it fully staged.  The story is hugely melodramatic—a young woman believes she had visions of an angel as a young girl, but the visions stopped when she expressed sexual longings for it.  The bulk of the story revolves around her increasingly obsessive attempts to find a man she believes to be the angel’s human incarnation.  The final exorcism sequence is a harrowing bit of theater.


Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  While this work originally premiered on Broadway, it has been taken up by opera companies around the world.  And it is a masterpiece.  A barber is unjustly sent to prison in Botany Bay by an unscrupulous judge who covets the barber’s wife.  Years later, the barber escapes and returns home.  When he learns the tragic fate of his wife an infant daughter, he swears revenge… not just on the judge who destroyed his family, but on the entire corrupt society that lets injustice stand.  What follows is a brutal tale of bloodlust, insanity, and the terrible price of vengeance.


Verdi: Macbeth This was the first of Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas, originally written in 1847 and revised in 1865.  It is much more compressed and economical relative to his later Otello and Falstaff; as a result, the opera comes off a terrifying thriller.  As in Shakespeare’s original, Macbeth tells the story of a Scottish lord who begins a bloody campaign to seize the crown and hold it against all rivals.  The opera abounds with supernatural evil, including witches who feed Macbeth’s ambition, and ghosts that shatter his sanity.


Weber: Der Freischütz.  Der Freischütz, which premiered in 1821, was a pioneering work that helped spark the Romantic Movement in Germany. It tells the story of a marksman (the “freeshooter” of the title) named Max who wants to earn the title of head huntsman, plus the right to wed his love Agatha, by winning a shooting contest.  He meets a mysterious man named Casper, who promises to help him forge magic bullets that will ensure victory.  What Max doesn’t know is that Casper has already forfeited his soul to the Devil; he is looking to provide the Devil with a substitute in exchange for a three-year grace period.  If he can lure Max into sacrilege by creating and using the cursed bullets, Max’s soul will be forfeit.  Fearful of losing his love to a rival, Max agrees to the plan, and in the opera’s most famous scene proceeds to forge the diabolical bullets… without realizing he is damning himself in the process. What follows is a supernatural cat-and-mouse game, as the forces of evil and righteousness battle for the souls of Max, Casper, and Agatha.




6 thoughts on “A Guide to Horror Operas, for Those Who Loved “The Shining”

  1. Oh, my goodness, we can do much better than this! Sure, Giovanni has a supernatural element, but it’s hardly a horror genre piece. And I really wouldn’t send horror fans to Robert le diable, even if they could find a production of it somewhere. I do agree with Turn of the Screw and Verdi’s Macbeth. But what about Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium? If we’re bringing in Sweeney Todd (which would top my list), what about Puccini’s equally Grand Guignol Il tabarro? There’s at least one Frankenstein opera out there (and probably more) and another one due for its premiere in Brussels. Among the operas of the 19th century standard repertoire, Lucia di Lammermoor has to have pride of place over Giovanni and certainly Debussy’s talky, dramatically inert Fall of the House of Usher. If we’re talking to opera newbies who liked The Shining, why not go for it and recommend pieces that really inhabit the genre?


    • Thanks for posting, and for the additional ideas! I should point out that this is a list of 10 recommendations and is not meant to be an exhaustive compendium of all horror operas; I greatly appreciate others’ feedback to present a fuller range of options.

      A few thoughts. Obviously, some of our ideas are a function of personal taste. For example, I find it curious that you write off Debussy’s Usher as being “talky and dramatically inert,” yet recommend Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle… which to me is the living embodiment of talky and dramatically inert. Others have raved about it as a probing psychological study, but for me personally the endless dialog between two characters isn’t remotely scary, especially given the original tale. Whatever its other faults, Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue at least spins the same source material into a coherent narrative. But people do love Bartók, so maybe that’s just me.

      Puccini’s Il tabarro could make the list, but there isn’t really a supernatural element to it—it seems more like a “thriller” to me rather than a work of horror. For this same reason, I hesitated to add Sweeney Todd in my original list. If Il tabarro stays, it seems by definition we should add a host of other versimo operas like Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci… for that matter, I’d also throw in Tosca or even Rigoletto as being taut, bloody thrillers, too. But by then, we’re traveling pretty far afield.

      Lucia di Lammermoor is a worthy choice, notably for its incomparable mad scene. I don’t know it, but Maxwell Davis’s The Lighthouse also sounds like a solid choice. I’d also toss out Dvořák’s Kate and the Devil, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, and Janáček’s The Makropulos Case as potential options. And if memory serves, Dolores Clairbone was premiered by San Francisco Opera in 2013. Maybe Strauss’s Elektra? I’m still in recovery from that one.

      Truth be told, I recently saw a version of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel that was set in an abandoned Depression-era carnival, and the broken, decrepit clowns and circus imagery—later brought to malevolent life—were beyond terrifying.

      But again, thanks for the thoughts… any others?


      • Might I submit for your consideration the late Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur? It was recorded a few years ago by Glimmerglass Opera, and it’s very vivid and pretty creepy.


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