Review: The Minnesota Opera’s “The Shining”

The Minnesota Opera just unleashed The Shining—a new opera based on the novel by Stephen King.  And in a word, it was spectacular.  It was the kind of success that most companies dream about, not just in terms of artistry, but in connecting with the community.  For weeks it was the most talked about event in town, and it sold out the entire run weeks before opening night.

Sadly, the run has come to an end… but allow me to provide a review for those unable to secure a ticket.

* * *

The Shining’s story is a familiar one, seared into our collective conscious by way of Stephen King’s bestselling novel and Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie.  It opens with Jack Torrance driving his family into a remote corner in the Colorado Rockies. Jack has been hired to serve as winter caretaker at the venerable Overlook Hotel during the off-season while it is closed; he and the family will live there in isolation until spring.

In a way, the opening has a Walt Whitman feel to it… Jack, his wife, and his son are all searching for healing.  Jack is trying to get his life on track, after alcohol and his inability to control his temper cost him his job.  He is also terrified that he’s becoming like his father, an abusive drunk who made his own childhood a living hell.  His wife Wendy has grown overprotective of their son as she tries hold the family together.  Their 6-year-old son Danny has problems of a more unusual sort—he is slowly developing psychic abilities, and terrified about what this means.  Collectively the Torrances hope that through the months-long solitude at the Overlook, they can heal, regroup, and reconnect as a family.

If that was their hope, they chose the wrong spot.

As it turns out, the Overlook Hotel is a place of brooding evil.  It is haunted by ghosts of those who died there violently; these spirits feast on the violence and urge the living to repeat the cycle of murder. Worse, they are drawn to Danny and his latent powers like moths to a flame.

What follows is a study in terror, as the trapped family members battle the effects of isolation, the malevolent spirits, and their own inner demons to stay alive.

* * *

It was a gamble to bring The Shining to the stage, but the show was an unqualified success.

One of the strengths of the Minnesota Opera production is the adaptation itself—given the familiarity of the source material and Stephen King’s legendary dislike for the movie, the task of adapting the story was probably a nail-biter in its own right.  Mark Campell’s libretto sidestepped the movie, and instead was drawn from Stephen King’s original novel.  As a result, many of the movie’s famously eerie visual images were not present in the opera, nor were the extended chase scenes of the movie’s second half.

Instead, the opera focused tightly on the dynamics of the Torrance family.  Here, we saw their strength and understood their deep love for each other, even as we watched the rifts form that ultimately ripped them apart. One could argue that the libretto took a bit too long at the very beginning to set up the family’s dynamics, but once the piece got going, its pacing was perfectly judged so that the intensity kept building and building… all the way to the terrifying climax.  It was relentless.

Paul Moravec’s score was sensational.  He basically used an accessible, tonal style of writing—creating a sound world that felt grounded in Romanticism without being trapped by it.  And it truth, this idiom served the opera brilliantly by establishing the “normal American family-ness” of the Torrance family right from the opera’s start.  But as the supernatural forces took over, the score grew more complex, bristling with percussion and disquieting dissonance.  In the best sense of the word, the music was cinematic in the way that it permeated and highlighted the action.  Again and again, the music created an atmosphere bristling with with danger… danger that was sensed rather than seen.  Moravec’s score also excelled at presenting emotions that were so vividly drawn, you felt you could actually reach out and grab them.

I also loved Moravec’s use of what might best be called “split-screen sequences” in the score; one such memorable moment was when Wendy sang a straightforward lullaby to urge the frightened Danny to fall asleep, while simultaneously Jack was tormented by a vision of his own father coming in at night and beating him with a cane.  These juxtapositions functioned as a bit of counterpoint that heightened the musical drama, but also cleverly showed the ghosts of the hotel feeding off the insecurities the humans… twisting their emotions and turning tenderness to rage.

The roles were brilliantly cast with singing actors that truly lived their parts.  Brian Mulligan was terrifying as Jack, the flawed father whose desire to do right by his family slowly twisted into madness.  He brought a fearsome physicality to the role and great intensity, but he never let go of Jack’s tragic vulnerability.  He was not a simple monster, and was all the more terrifying for it.  Kelly Kaduce, who earned raves earlier this season for her portrayals of Rusalka and Tosca, sparkled as Wendy.  Her silvery voice was perfect for the part, and her acting was sensational.  It was thrilling to watch her nervous desperation at the beginning of the story harden into steel as she fought against a man she still obviously loved.  Arthur Woodley was perfectly cast as Hallorann, the hotel’s cook who shares Danny’s psychic abilities.  His gorgeous aria in the story’s epilogue was a perfect end to the story.

The staging itself was extraordinary.  Director Eric Simonson assembled a dream team to bring this dark story to life, working with Erhard Rom as the set designer, Karin Kopischke as costumer, and Robert Wierzel for lighting design.  Together they created an ever-shifting hotel that slowly took on a life its own.  They were helped by the brilliant projections of 59 Productions, which created nightmarish special effects.

I also appreciated the delicate balance of the work—it managed to avoid being either too earnest or too over the top.  Given the familiarity of the story and the iconic, larger-than-life acting of Jack Nicholson in the movie, it could very easily have gone too far and veered into camp.  The equal danger would be in taking itself too seriously and not letting anything spin out of control.  Instead, the acting, the music, and staging managed to work together to create a production that was disturbing and unnatural… but real.

That’s what made the show so frightening.

* * *

All in all, The Shining was a spectacular success, and the assembled forces delivered a terrifying opera. But in a way, I am most impressed by how effectively this new work reached its intended audience.  The theater was split between opera regulars and curious horror fans who probably wouldn’t know Madama Butterfly from Carmen.  But both sides of the aisle loved it, if possibly for different reasons. The buzz this opera generated was extraordinary, and has continued even after the run drew to a close.

Congratulations to all involved.  I predict The Shining has a long, bright future ahead.



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