On the way into the Ordway Saturday night, I passed a group of twentysomethings decked out in the type of formal dress that might be considered ironic in a context other than a Minnesota Opera performance. Even amongst the normal hustle and flow of a weekend opera crowd, this group’s exuberance stood out. As they started moving toward the doors, one of the young men yelped, “I am so fuckin’ excited for this!” I could be wrong, but I don’t think that was a phrase getting bandied about much by the folks waiting to see Tosca.
And that, of course, is a large part of why The Minnesota Opera’s new adaptation of The Shining exists. In the performing arts community’s never-ending quest for younger audiences, there’s obvious value in mounting a production based on an iconic piece of pop culture, particularly one with a significant “How are they gonna turn that into an opera?” factor. It’s a solid strategy, as evidenced by the noticeable and enthusiastic turnout of younger viewers at Saturday night’s performance.
Heck, it’s the reason this review even exists - MinnesotaPlaylist critics certainly weren’t jockeying nearly as eagerly to write up, say, Rusalka earlier in the season. So what we have here is a critic who doesn’t generally review opera writing an opera review that will probably be read largely by people who don’t generally read opera reviews. The system works.
Does it work?
Still, all of the hype isn’t worth much if the production turns out to be the high-art equivalent of The Avengers on Ice. Thankfully, The Shining lands well above that mark, even if it doesn’t pull off everything it aspires to. The operatic approach proves effective in drawing out some of the classical elements of Stephen King’s iconic horror story of a haunted hotel in a remote Colorado resort (and, to a lesser extent, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation thereof). For all of the creepy elements that have become ingrained in our collective consciousness over the decades - “Redrum,” the two little ghost girls, “Heeeere’s Johnny,” etc. - The Shining at its heart is the story of a strong man brung low by hubris, madness and toxic masculinity. That’s prime opera fodder for sure.
Probably the best thing this production has going for it is the cast. As embodied by Brian Mulligan, struggling novelist and hotel caretaker Jack Torrance becomes a near Shakespearean character - physically powerful, deeply vain and dangerously neurotic. Mulligan plays Jack as a man teetering close enough to the brink that he needs only the slightest spectral push to turn full-on homicidal. Mulligan manifests that instability in his singing, his robust voice tinged with a tension and mania that simmers menacingly until it finally boils over in a primal howl.
Kelly Kaduce is every bit Mulligan’s match in what may be The Shining’s most difficult role, long-suffering wife and mother Wendy Torrance. Kaduce strikes a balance between the timid naivete of a woman who’s forcing herself to believe that this time her troubled husband will finally be able to turn it all around and the ferocious strength of a woman who recognizes a threat and will do anything to protect her loved ones.
Her voice makes maybe the strongest impression of any in the show, with one particularly haunting bedside aria eliciting vigorous applause from the crowd. Young Alejandro Vega isn’t asked to do much singing but pulls off a strong, sympathetic performance as the couple’s supernaturally gifted son, playing especially well against the booming orations of Arthur Woodley’s similarly psychic hotel chef.
Of course, one of the most important roles in The Shining is entirely non-verbal, that of the Overlook Hotel itself. Erhard Rom’s production team has created a memorable, elegantly appointed set that captures the spirit of a grand estate sliding into obsolescence. A clever arrangement of self-contained, movable rooms allows the action to shift effortlessly from lobby to bedroom to pantry as sets are wheeled on and off stage. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design also does some heavy lifting, casting strategic shadows down ghostly hallways and across Mulligan’s increasingly demonic face.
Is it too timid?
Obviously a lot of this works very well, but I’m not ready to call this Shining a classic. For all of the powerful performances and effective atmosphere, the production never quite gels as a compelling story. While it’s admirable that Mark Campbell’s libretto gives as much attention to quiet moments and characterization as it does to larger-scale set pieces, the production at times feels almost too muted.
Jack’s journey into madness is a foregone and foreshadowed conclusion from the start, which lowers the stakes noticeably and undercuts some moments that should pack bigger chills. And while I’m always happy to see a stage production with the guts to diverge from its cinematic counterpart, I can’t deny being acutely aware of the absence of any imagery comparable to Kubrick’s nightmare visions.
The show is at its lively best during its several bacchanal scenes, where dozens of the Overlook’s restless ghosts emerge to toast and torment Jack in the ballroom. There’s a woozy hellishness to these moments that hints at a potential for a kind of horror that The Shining mostly bypasses.
All told, this is a worthy production propelled by majestic design, full-bodied performances and impressive ambition. It might not be all things to all fans of opera, The Shining or horror in general, but it offers enough to keep most viewers of all disciplines happy.
I don’t know whether that young man from before the show was still “fuckin’ excited” on his way out, but I do know he and a lot of other presumable newbies saw a solid production of a style of theater they might otherwise have missed out on. That’s a victory for everyone involved.