“…We have to make characters sing, and we have to care about them…Each character has to have a heart.” — Mark Campbell
And so, librettist Mark Campbell gives some insight into the characters that he — along with composer Paul Moravec — brought to life on stage for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of The Shining. Directly based on the Stephen King international, blockbuster novel, the opera was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and premiered in May 2016 at the Ordway Music Theater in Saint Paul, MN. Staging was directed by Eric Simonson and Michael Christie conducted the opening performances. Lyric Opera of Kansas City was originally scheduled to present The Shining in the spring of 2020, but was forced to postpone its production due to the pandemic. For the opera company’s spring 2023 run, Simonson returns to direct the opera at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, with Gerard Schwarz conducting. Performances dates are March 11, 17 and 19.
Deborah Sandler, CEO and general director of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, notes that Moravec and Campbell’s opera is very different from the well known Stanley Kubrick movie. “Each art form brings a different lens to the story,” she observes. “Everywhere [the opera has] played, it has drawn large audiences…We believe that at its heart, [The Shining] is about a family trying to keep it together and work through things. Of course, there is a little bit of the supernatural, but this is not scary…but it’s very atmospheric. The production elements are beautifully designed [and] there’s just enough…”
Campbell explores the roles of Jack and Wendy Torrance, the lead adult characters of the story. “In the novel, Jack Torrance is a man who has some serious problems. He’s an alcoholic, he has abused his son physically, and we later learn that he himself was abused by his father. Paul and I were determined to establish Jack as a real human being who has feelings, and wants to be a good father. He becomes relatable to an audience, and therefore scarier.” Director Eric Simonson weighs in. “The reason why, in the horror genre, this novel makes such a good opera is because it’s based in ‘real’ people…The big question is whether this is coming from Jack’s point of view, and if it is, is it real? Or is it just in Jack’s imagination? Are these ghosts real? And because it seems so real it makes it all the more horrifying..because watching someone have a mental breakdown is itself a horror story.” Campbell continues, “In the book, Wendy Torrance is a true operatic heroine who will stop at nothing to protect her child, and who also cares about her husband and wants to get him through this [episode]. And that’s what’s so strong in the opera, through Paul’s music…We have to make characters sing, and we have to care about them and know that they have emotions, that they have hearts beating inside. You can’t write ‘spiel’. Each character has to have a heart.”
“It’s a very operatic story, everything about it.” adds Moravec. “There’s a lot of conflict and frailty and struggle. Jack Torrance is basically a decent guy trying to do the right thing. He becomes a monster later on, and that’s the tragedy and the horror of the thing…Ultimately a composer has to ask him- or herself: ‘Why are people singing?’ I mean, it’s opera. What extreme emotions are giving rise to song? Jack [is] struggling to reconcile two sets of instructions that he’s getting from this supernatural power. One is to look after his family, which is what a decent guy does, and the other [set], from the hotel, is telling him to kill his family. If you don’t try to have beautiful melodies, if you don’t try to move the audience with gorgeous music, what’s the point? I try not to ever lose sight of that, because it’s important in holding the attention of the audience: and it’s important in overcoming the sort of artificiality of the conventions of opera. I think of opera being about three things — love, death and power — and all of those elements are in this opera, on steroids.”