When you pause to consider all the hallowed works of literature that have been adapted over the ages for the opera stage, the horror genre is not likely the first that leaps to mind, right? I mean, who’s going to scare ya with an aria about things that go bump in the night?
Nevertheless, there have been some compellingly chilly tales that have inspired composers and their librettists to conjure up operas that have been smash hits with audiences, and one of them is coming to a theater near us. “The Shining,” adapted from horrormeister Stephen King’s novel by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell, Pulitzer Prize winners both, was totally sold-out weeks in advance of its 2016 Minnesota Opera premiere. Now San Francisco-based Opera Parallèle is mounting a new version the pair have created for chamber orchestra to run for three performances only, June 2-4 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In a Zoom session with Opera Parallèle supporters, the collaborators emphasized that their opera is based, not on the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film starring a wild-eyed Jack Nicholson, but on King’s 1977 novel itself. And they were adamant about that, arguing that the book has complex layers the movie does not.
“I love the Stanley Kubrick movie, I really do,” protested Campbell. “But it’s not the story. When you read the novel, there are so many elements that are just classic opera, starting with the main character, Jack Torrance. He is really trying to be a good man, and you don’t know that from the movie. When you see Jack Nicholson, you think ‘Oh, he is going to kill his family.’”
For his part, composer Moravec thinks the book is a perfect launchpad for an opera. “Stephen King is a brilliant storyteller,” he noted. “It’s about love, death and power—on steroids! Also, it’s about archetypes,” he continued, “it’s about retelling … ancient stories that are deep in our collective unconscious.” Moravec identified one such archetypal influence in King’s work: “He is reimagining the story of Abraham and Isaac,” he said. “Abraham is being told by a supernatural power to sacrifice his son, which is what is happening in ‘The Shining’ as well.”
The duo noted that King hated the movie version so much that he authored a screenplay for a subsequent TV adaptation. Campbell, a fan of both the movie and the book, observed, “The movie succeeded because it went in a completely different direction than the book. I think the opera succeeds because it takes the novel further, because of the addition of music.”
Check out www.operaparallele.org for tickets and more information about the production.
If you’re still harboring doubts about whether an opera can credibly creep an audience out, consider a couple of other examples. Composer Benjamin Britten’s 1954 “Turn of the Screw,” based on the 1898 Henry James novella, uses a theme and variations musical scheme in its prologue and 15 episodes that effectively ratchets up the moody suspense to the near breaking point. The story revolves around a governess arriving at an isolated Victorian mansion to find that her two young charges, Miles and Flora, may be in the manipulative grip of the ghosts of a former valet and the governess he seduced. There have been several productions of it in the Bay Area in recent decades, including a highly lauded version mounted by West Edge Opera in 2013.
And we need look no further than that maestro of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, for source material that has been siphoned into plots that raise goosebumps while an unsettling score spools out. His 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been adapted not once, but three times for the opera stage, first in somewhat fragmented form by Claude Debussy (“La chute de la maison Usher”) in the early 20th century, although it took another six decades before others completed it and brought it to the stage in 1977. We got a more fully realized version from American composer Philip Glass in 1988, when his “The Fall of the House of Usher” debuted at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And San Francisco philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty added a third offering, supplying his own libretto and adding Poe in as a character for an opera he called “Usher House,” which San Francisco Opera mounted on a double bill with the Debussy opera in 2015.
Good for another round: For the first time in history, the Library of Congress has reappointed our national poet laureate for a second two-year term. Ada Limón, born in California’s Sonoma and living now in Lexington, Kentucky, is the author of six collections of poetry and the recipient of many a prestigious grant, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. When Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden first named her to the post in July 2022, she became our 24th poet laureate and the first Latina. Her second term begins in September and runs through April 2025. Curious about her output, I dove deep into some archives and was rewarded with this delight, cleverly titled “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use”:
All these great barns out here in the outskirts,
black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.
They look so beautifully abandoned, even in use.
You say they look like arks after the sea’s
dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,
and I think of that walk in the valley where
J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,
woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.
So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,
its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name
though we knew they were really just clouds—
disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.
Copyright ©2012 by Ada Limón
Learning from the wise one: Those of us who give a hoot for our fine feathered friends will want to hit the Orinda Library auditorium on June 18 at 2 p.m. to hear award-winning science author Jennifer Ackerman expound upon “What an Owl Knows” (Penguin Press, $28, 352 pages), which will have published five days earlier. The author of “The Genius of Birds” and other ornithological treatises has been following her chosen subject for more than 30 years. The event is sponsored by Orinda Books and the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which will receive support for its research programs from some of the proceeds from event sales. Tickets, $35, include a copy of the book and are available at orindabooks.com.
Author alert: One of the Bay Area’s literary lights, the incredibly prolific Isabel Allende, has another novel coming out on June 6. “The Wind Knows My Name” (Ballantine Books, $28, 261 pages) is a double narrative, weaving together eight decades apart the stories of young refugees (fleeing the Nazis and the modern dangers of El Salvador respectively) who struggle for survival after being separated from their families. Allende will be featured in conversation about the book with “Solito” author Javier Zamora, himself a Salvadoran refugee, at 7 p.m. June 14 in Angelico Concert Hall on the Dominican University campus in San Rafael. Tickets, $40, include a copy of the book, You can find them through bookpassage.com or call 415-927-0960. And for a delicious little piece of trivia on Allende, check out this YouTube video from an episode on which all three “Jeopardy!” contestants came up with the right answer.
Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.