Love, Death and Power – On Steroids

A scene from the Minnesota Opera’s production of “The Shining,” in which Jack finds himself locked in the pantry with his family outside. (photo by Ken Howard)

“The Shining” was one of many performances throughout the city cancelled because of the coronavirus threat. See our story, COVID-19: Kansas City Goes Dark, by Robert Trussell, for more information about cancelled performances.

Lyric Opera Presents ‘The Shining’

What should you expect from an opera based on one of the most terrifying horror stories of all time? Believe it or not, a story about humanity.

“The Shining” composer Paul Moravec (Lyric Opera of Kansas City)

That’s what composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell discovered when they turned Stephen King’s novel into an opera for the Minnesota Opera. The main characters are painted richly human, their psychological struggles — their wants, their fears and their demons — gorily splashed onto a supernatural canvas.

“I thought it was a good idea right off the bat,” said Moravec. “It’s an ideal subject for an opera because it’s about love, death and power — on steroids. It’s very dramatic.”

Lyric Opera of Kansas City is only the second company to present “The Shining,” with four performances at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. (Minnesota Opera premiered the work in 2016.)

For those unfamiliar with both the novel and the movie, the story features the Torrance family, who come to live as winter caretakers at the Overlook Hotel, isolated in the mountains. Jack is a writer, Wendy is supporting this attempt to heal their dysfunctional family, while Danny, their young son, exhibits a nascent sixth sense, “the shining.” As they live in the hotel, its sordid past and resident ghouls are revealed, driving Jack mad and threatening Wendy’s and Danny’s lives.

“The Shining” librettist Mark Campbell (Lyric Opera of Kansas City)

The idea to adapt King’s novel came from director Eric Simonson and Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson. (This adaption aligns more closely to the novel, rather than the 1980 Stanley Kubrick movie.) Johnson had seen Moravec’s opera “The Letter” at Santa Fe Opera in 2009 and approached him about the project.

The process took three years. Librettist Campbell, whose work has been seen in Kansas City in performances of “Silent Night” and “As One,” had the task of securing permission from King and whittling the 600-plus page novel down to a workable form. “He distilled it down to a libretto that might be 50 pages, if that. It’s quite a challenge, and the process continued as I was writing the piece,” said Moravec.

With the libretto in place, the musical ideas begin with the story itself. “Follow the guidance of the story, and the story tells you what the music is going to sound like,” said Moravec.

He achieves the novel’s sense of evolving menace and heightened tension through the use of leitmotifs. “Everybody has a leitmotif. They are developed throughout, and that’s a very important part of musical storytelling, because even if the listener is not aware of when a leitmotif comes around again, it still works subliminally on the listener,” said Moravec. “That’s part of playing directly on the central nervous system of the listener. . . a lot of work is being done unconsciously in the storytelling and getting the audience to feel what the characters are feeling.”

This is Moravec’s fourth opera, but he’s written more than 200 compositions, in a range of genres and styles. “Every composition requires its own response from me as the composer. I use different parts of my brain depending on what the demands of the piece are,” he said. “There is nothing harder than writing an opera: It’s all-consuming.”

Moravec will be in town during rehearsals to work with the company and conductor Gerard Schwarz, and he’s already made a few tweaks to the score. Most are orchestration edits, but they’ve added a stand-alone aria for Jack (performed by baritone Edward Parks), something that was missing from the original rendition.

Minnesota Opera lends a Director and Design

Lyric Opera brings in the work’s original director, Eric Simonson, and uses the theatrical design from the Minnesota show, too, with Erhard Rom’s set design and Kärin Kopischke’s costume design, as well as lighting by Robert Wierzel and projection mapping by London-based 59 Productions, which make the hotel appear as the menacing, haunted entity that it is, tortured and bleeding.

Soprano Kelly Kaduce, who originated the role of Wendy Torrance at the Minnesota Opera, is coming to Kansas City to play Wendy with the Lyric Opera. (Lyric Opera of Kansas City)

Soprano Kelly Kaduce originated the role of Wendy in 2016 (she was most recently in Kansas City for LOKC’s “Die Fledermaus”). Her performance of Wendy was described as fearless, and it’s no wonder, launching into the physical, theatrical and emotional challenges. “There was a 20-foot staircase we had to run up and down, lots of onstage quick changes and a fight scene,” said Kaduce.

“The Shining” is no conventional “park-and-bark” performance.

“We were completely out of breath the first several times we were running it and trying to time it out correctly,” she said. “It was a built-in exercise routine.”

It’s a dangerous, violent story, and the telling of it includes flashing effects, smashed props and fight scenes with grappling and stabbing (carefully choreographed to look real but keep the performers safe). Nevertheless, Kaduce ended that initial run with bruises on her legs.

“It was the nature of the show and my nature of throwing myself into a role!” said Kaduce. “I tend to get so wrapped up in the scene that I don’t even notice or care that I have slammed my leg into something.”

With the exception of Kaduce, most of the cast is new to the opera. “Having different
castmates inherently changes how you play the role. The words and music are the same, but no two people interact the same way,” she said. “Having the opportunity to perform a role many times always creates more depth and subtlety.”

Danny is surprised by the bathtub ghost in this scene from the Minnesota Opera’s production of “The Shining.” (photo by Ken Howard)

Along with Parks and Kaduce, the cast includes Aubrey Allicock (Halloran), Malcolm MacKenzie (Mark Torrance) and Roger Honeywell (Lloyd the bartender) in their Lyric Opera of Kansas City debuts. Joseph Leppek, Kelly Birch and Seungyun Kim, all current or former resident artists, return to the Kauffman Theatre stage, along with Schyler Vargas. Young actors/singers Holly Ladage and Olivia LaFoletter are the Grady girls. (As of press time, the role of Danny had not been cast.)

Kaduce saw the humanity in the story, too.

“The Torrance family is trying to leave behind the troubles of their past and make a new start. They arrive with their eyes closed to the reality of who they are and leave with them wide open,” she said.

That’s what Moravec and the creative team are trying to convey, and (if you dare to skip to the end of the novel) it’s a realization of human connection as a healing force.

“I was struck by its quiet elegance, its humanity, its emotional resonance,” he said of King’s last paragraph. “Yes, it’s a horror story with ghosts, etc., but after all, it’s mostly a story — and an opera — about love.”

Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “The Shining” April 25 and 29 and May 1 and 3 at the Kauffman Center. For more information and tickets, www.kcopera.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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