MN Opera's 'Shining' may be the scariest yet

Baritone Brian Mulligan
Baritone Brian Mulligan sings Jack Torrance in the Minnesota Opera's new adaptation of "The Shining." He describes it as intense, and even brutal when it comes to the fight scenes, but ultimately a fun experience.
Courtesy Minnesota Opera

This weekend, the Minnesota Opera aims to scare the living daylights out of its audience. It's presenting the world premiere of "The Shining," Stephen King's tale of an empty hotel filled with murderous evil spirits.

It's been a novel, a miniseries and a film, but opera staff believe the musical connection their art form offers may make this the scariest "Shining" yet.

Librettist Mark Campbell is even hoping for a tiny moment of operatic history. "We do hope that someone will say, 'Don't go in there!'" he said. "That would be a first for an opera, so we do hope that happens."

"The Shining" tells the story of Jack Torrance, a deeply troubled writer who takes his wife Wendy and their son Danny to the remote Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. He's going to be the winter caretaker, and maybe find a subject for that book he's been meaning to write. The hotel is closed for the season, but it soon becomes clear it's actually fully occupied by a host of malevolent spirits who have met untimely ends in the hotel.

Campbell and composer Paul Moravec began adapting "The Shining" as an opera three years ago. It's based on Stephen King's 1977 novel rather than Stanley Kubrick's film, released in 1980. But Moravec believes the opera's music gives it a physiological advantage over past versions.

"It's the singers and the orchestra that plug directly into the central nervous systems of the listeners in the audience, and that's how we convey what Jack Torrance is feeling, what Wendy Torrance is feeling, what all the characters are feeling," he said. "It's kind of a wondrous and mysterious process that happens through sound waves that then activate our brains when we hear the music and we feel what these characters are feeling."

A set rendering
The Minnesota Opera will use ghostly costuming and intricate video-projection to create the haunting of the Overlook Hotel in its world premiere production of "The Shining."
Courtesy Minnesota Opera

And these characters feel a lot. Young Danny Torrance possesses a talent for sensing the spirit world, an ability he calls "the shining." The ghosts begin to appear to Danny, and Jack catches glimpses of them as he moves around the hotel. The Minnesota Opera production uses a mixture of grotesquely costumed chorus members and a complex video-projection system to bring the spirits to life.

Jack, a survivor of vicious physical abuse by his own father, is desperately trying to keep from continuing the cycle of violence with his own family. The Overlook ghosts goad him to attack Wendy and Danny. He struggles unsuccessfully against the spectral voices he's hearing. He and Wendy get into increasingly ferocious fights.

"You never loved me!" Jack sings. "You want to leave here. You want to destroy me!"

"Stop it, Jack" Wendy responds.

Baritone Brian Mulligan, who plays Jack, and soprano Kelly Kaduce, who plays Wendy, say the show is intense and exhausting ... and, Mulligan said, ultimately very disturbing.

"I think one of the most interesting parts of 'The Shining' is what is more scary: Domestic violence, like real domestic violence, or ghosts?" he asked.

Jack Torrance is a challenging role to sing, he said.

"But it's really fun," he said with a laugh. "It's fun to get to smash the door. It's fun to be remorseless."

"The Shining" is the latest of the Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative series, a program designed to create new American operas and have them performed around the country. Opera companies all over the United States have produced earlier pieces from the initiative, including "The Grapes of Wrath," "Silent Night" and "Doubt."

Paul Moravec, left, and Mark Campbell
Composer Paul Moravec, left, and librettist Mark Campbell have been working for three years to adapt Stephen King's horror novel "The Shining." They believe the musical connection created with an audience during an opera makes this production scarier than previous film and TV adaptations.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The entire run of "The Shining" sold out a couple of weeks ago. The Minnesota Opera hopes it's a sign that the production will be staged elsewhere. Producers from several U.S. opera companies will attend opening night. However, Librettist Campbell said there is also great interest in who else will be in the audience.

"There will be opera lovers, but what I really hope is there will be people who have not gone to the opera before," he said. "And I hope that we are attracting that element in our audience, and I think we are."

Composer Moravec added that whenever he writes music, he assumes it's for people who don't yet know they love opera.