Atlanta Opera, Alliance Theatre collab brings ‘The Shining’ to the stage

Stephen King’s psychological horror story naturally lends itself to the art form, say creators.
Craig Irvin (left) rehearses the role of Jack Torrance with Max Walls, who plays Danny, in the Atlanta Opera and Alliance Theatre co-production of "The Shining."
Courtesy of Felipe Barral

Credit: Felipe Barral

Credit: Felipe Barral

Craig Irvin (left) rehearses the role of Jack Torrance with Max Walls, who plays Danny, in the Atlanta Opera and Alliance Theatre co-production of "The Shining." Courtesy of Felipe Barral

When “The Shining” spills onto the Alliance Theatre stage on Sept. 15, don’t expect to see oft-parodied moments like blood flooding out of an elevator or lines like, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Those iconic scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel — which King himself famously despised — have been left on the cutting room floor in this coproduction by Atlanta Opera and the Alliance Theatre. In their place is something deeper but no less terrifying, as the production centers on the 1977 book’s themes of addiction, cyclical abuse, family, the subjectivity of reality and the agony of writing — all through song and stagecraft.

The story follows the Torrance family — Jack and Wendy and their young son Danny — who have agreed to spend an isolated winter at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Jack, the family patriarch, is haunted by the specter — metaphorically and, increasingly, literally — of the abuse he experienced as a child. As Jack loses his battle to alcoholism, his rapidly fracturing state of mind and the malevolent spirits of the hotel, his family must find a way to escape to safety.

Librettist Mark Campbell. Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

icon to expand image

Credit: Atlanta Opera

Librettist Mark Campbell, who won a Pulitzer for “Silent Night” in 2012 and a Grammy in 2019 for “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” hadn’t yet read the book when the Minnesota Opera commissioned him to adapt the piece. Once he cracked open the almost 700-page tome, in all its expansive complexity, “there was a moment of real panic when I started reading it,” he said. How on earth could he squish all the important pieces in there?

“A lot of the choices that I made in adapting the book had to do with how I can increase the audience’s understanding of what this family is going through,” he said.

Campbell and composer Paul Moravec, also a Pulitzer winner, formed a kind of symbiotic partnership over the roughly three years it took to craft the piece. Describing their process, Moravec explained that a scene that might have taken 150 pages in the book got put into the “trash compactor” and came out as about 12 minutes onstage.

Gone are a few scenes they tried to make work but just couldn’t — like one from the book where Jack gives Danny a live wasp’s nest to play with, and one where topiaries on the hotel grounds move, which Campbell thought could be too cutesy and Disney-like.

Instead of those campier moments, they infused the production, which premiered in 2016 at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, with the real heartbreak and pathos of a family coming apart at the seams. But it’s still horror, said Campbell, because “nothing is more terrifying than the human heart and where the human heart can go.”

Composer Paul Moravec. Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

icon to expand image

Credit: Atlanta Opera

Moravec said opera is about three things — love, death and power, all of which were “on steroids” already in King’s prose, making it perfect source material for the “primal” nature of opera.

King “taps into these deep-seated archetypes in the human condition that are perhaps timeless and universal … Once you harness the energy, it takes you along with it,” he said.

“Opera is an amazing, magical art form. But there’s so much artifice, right? Why are adults singing at the top of their lungs at each other? Like two feet away from each other?” said Moravec. “You overcome this question because … there’s something so emotionally overpowering to where words no longer are sufficient. And music takes over and song takes over. That’s why Stephen King is so scary; because he taps into our deepest emotions, including our fears. It’s not seeing people get chopped up and smashed and whatever. It’s psychological. It’s deeply in there.”

Throughout the show, the audience will hear leitmotifs (recurring musical phrases) that will fill their minds with a sense of growing dread. And each character has their own “sound world.”

As Jack begins to unravel, the music becomes more off-kilter and eccentric, deviating from the rules of harmonious composition.

“As he loses his mind, the musical language becomes more and more unmoored and unhinged from a center,” said Moravec.

Craig Irvin. Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta

icon to expand image

Credit: Atlanta

Because the show is a marathon sprint of 11 performances across 14 days, it has been double cast. Craig Irvin, who shares the role of Jack with Thomas Glass, acknowledges that the music can be taxing — but rewarding. He said it allows him to immerse himself in a richer portrayal of the character.

Some of the vocal demands feel like an adrenaline rush, he said. He compared a scene of him fighting with Wendy in a snowstorm to “riding a bike and you’re on the uphill climb and you’re pedaling and you’re pedaling and it’s so hard and then you just pick up a ton of speed going down the mountain — it kind of feels like that,” he said.

Portraying a villain like Jack, said Irvin, requires finding balance between pity and disgust.

“I want the audience to sympathize with him and at some points to hate him and be repulsed by him — to swing back and forth with their emotions for the character,” he said. “If they don’t, then I haven’t done my job.”

Kearstin Piper Brown. Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

icon to expand image

Credit: Atlanta Opera

A major difference between Kubrick’s and King’s stories is the character of Wendy Torrance, who was portrayed by Shelley Duvall in the movie. In keeping with King’s vision, Wendy is a much more fully realized person — a hero, even — than she was in the film.

“She’s strong,” said soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, who shares the role of Wendy with Kelly Kaduce. “She went to the hotel with the best of intentions. She sees (the Overlook Hotel gig) as a time for them to rekindle intimacy with their entire family just being together alone. And that just doesn’t go well. She had all the most loving intentions, and it just went wrong.”

When planning their seasons, opera companies often walk a fine line between staging familiar classics and offering new, contemporary works that challenge the boundaries of the form — sometimes to the chagrin of those who wish to rigidly define it.

But Brown believes productions like “The Shining” can provide a valuable entry point for people who think opera is not for them. As a student at Spelman College, where she majored in music history and anthropology, she studied the history and culture of different musical forms across the world and learned that every country and community have their own form of opera.

It’s important to “give people something that they can access,” she said. “Accessible stories that people can relate to can be a wonderful entry.”

One thing audience-members can trust going into “The Shining,” it will “not be your grandfather’s opera,” said stage director Brian Staufenbiel.


OPERA PREVIEW

“The Shining.” Presented by Atlanta Opera and Alliance Theatre. Sept. 15-Oct. 1. $35 and up. Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta.atlantaopera.org, alliancetheatre.org

About the Author