Minnesota Opera premieres a scary 'Shining'

Don't go in there, Danny!Ken Howard/Minnesota Opera

May 08, 2016

On a beautiful Saturday night in St. Paul yesterday, an eager crowd made its way to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, each person holding one of the hottest tickets in America: a ticket to the world premiere of The Shining, an opera based on Stephen King's 1977 novel.

Perhaps King's best-known work, The Shining has remained resonant due to its chilling use of supernatural elements to accentuate the story of a man haunted by his own history of violence. The book was the basis of an iconic film by Stanley Kubrick, but King has never liked the movie: in the author's view, Kubrick's typically cold approach dehumanizes the characters.

The new opera surges forward on the strength of electrifying music by Paul Moravec. The singers, performing a libretto by Mark Campbell, float atop the orchestral score like uncertain vessels on a roiling sea as their stay as demons awake to torture them. It's a hell of a ride.

A physically imposing Brian Mulligan has the role of Jack Torrance, the man who ill-advisedly accepts an opportunity to serve as winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel. He establishes a warm rapport with his family: wife Wendy (Kelly Kaduce, tremendously empathetic) and their young son Danny (a sprightly Alejandro Vega).

The family settle in to spend the winter alone, but it turns out that they have plenty of ghostly company, including former caretaker Delbert Grady (David Walton) and Jack's father Mark (Mark Walters). Both men taunt Jack, advising that he needs to — in Grady's words — "correct the errors" of his wife and son, whose only mistake turns out to be not making a break for it when they have the chance, before Jack grabs a croquet mallet and starts swinging.

If there's ever a show where the setting is its own character, it's this one, and the infamous Overlook is realized as a striking (so to speak) set by Erhard Rom, elements sliding aside as the characters penetrate more deeply into the hotel's dark heart. The eerie Room 217 literally glows with menace; lighting designer Robert Wierzel uses heavenly glows to fiendish effect.

The question everyone seems to be asking about The Shining is, "Is it scary?" It is, but not in the way that a roller-coaster is scary, or even in the way that the movie — with its extended chase scenes — is scary. Rather, the opera is existentially scary: tension mounts to a fever pitch as the orchestra whips and cracks under the baton of Michael Christie.

Even potentially cheesy moments, like when Danny literally calls to his protector Dick Hallorann (Arthur Woodley) at the end of Act I, work because of the music's cinematic sweep. Moravec has created a soundtrack to the chaos within Jack's heart, and it's truly terrifying.