Paul Moravec, composer of the opera, "The Shining." (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

Haunting Harmonies: A conversation with composer Paul Moravec about his opera, “The Shining”

Mark Gresham | 13 SEP 2023

This Friday evening, The Atlanta Opera opens its Discoveries series production of The Shining by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell, based on the Stephen King novel, at The Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center.

Recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Tempest Fantasy, Moravec (born in 1957 in Buffalo, New York) is a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University. He is currently a music professor in the music department at Adelphi University and teaches composition at the Mannes School of Music. Accolades for his work include the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among Moravec’s numerous compositions are two operas: The Letter (2009) and The Shining (2016).

EarRelevant publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently spoke with Moravec by phone about composing The Shining. The Q&A below is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.

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Mark Gresham: Let’s get straight to the topic at hand, which is your opera, The Shining, which is being performed by The Atlanta Opera this month. I understand that the idea for the opera began with Eric Simonson. How, then, did you get involved in that?

Paul Moravec: Dale Johnson, who was the General Director at Minnesota Opera, saw my opera, The Letter, in Santa Fe in 2009. He liked it, and he wanted to commission me. We went back and forth with a bunch of ideas, one of which was Rosemary’s Baby, but the rights didn’t come through. So we moved on to other things, and one day he said, “How about The Shining?” And I said, “Oh my God, what an idea!” That was Eric’s idea initially, but they both cottoned to it. They suggested it to me. I sent an email to Stephen King and asked for his permission, and he got back to me right away in 20 minutes and said, “Yes, go ahead and call my secretary, and we’ll get going on this.” And that’s how it happened.

MG: Once you got permission from Stephen King, then Mark Campbell was brought into the mix as librettist?

PM: Dale suggested Mark, whom I knew because New York is a small town, you know, but I didn’t know him well. So I invited him over, and we talked about this, and I said, “Yes, this looks like a good fit.” So I said to Dale, “Yes, let’s go. It’s me and Mark. We’ll write this.”

MG: As for your music itself, a lot of describe your style as “New Tonalist,” which I understand was a term created by Terry Teachout, the librettist for that opera, The Letter.

PM: This term originally came from Terry, who was writing about me in the 1990s. He called me a New Tonalist, and then people picked up on that.

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MG: But today the term seems a little dated.

PM: Do you remember Ron Ziegler? He was Nixon’s press secretary. And during Watergate, he kept getting asked all these questions, and he was in an impossible situation. Somebody asked him about some statement, and he said, “That statement is no longer operable.” But you know what he meant. And the thing about the term New Tonalist is it was operable, one might say, in the late 90s, right? It’s no longer operable because who isn’t a New Tonalist now?

MG: My point in bringing it up is not so much about that terms itself, but about your approach to musical style. You’ve been quoted saying, “I try always to make beautiful things and I use whatever techniques and materials are useful for the particular composition at hand.” That brings us to the topic of composing opera. How do you approach writing for opera, specifically in writing the music for this Stephen King story?

PM: Generally speaking, there’s a paradox at the heart of opera. It’s a musical art form, obviously, but it’s also a theatrical art form, it’s a dramatic art form. The paradox is the music is driving the agenda; it’s musically dramatizing the story. (This is not true of musicals, by the way, and I want to make a distinction here about what opera does and what opera is). So music does the heavy lifting in my view, and if an opera fails, it’s mostly a musical problem anyway. But while everything is about music and the composer spends all of this time creating, making music, it’s ultimately so that the music can get out of the way of the story. This is an experience I’ve had actually watching The Shining. I’ve now seen several performances of it, and I look down the aisle where I’m sitting, and the audience is so involved. They’re sitting up. They’re alert. You can tell when an audience is listening and paying attention. That’s my experience with The Shining, they’re absolutely rapt and that, I say, that’s an opera. That’s what I want. Here’s the thing: I want them to forget they’re watching an opera.

That is the paradox of opera because it’s all about music, but the music has to get out of the way. In a certain sense, you might think of it this way: that it has to be translucent enough that the story comes through, when in fact, it’s the music making the story connect with the audience, playing directly on their central nervous systems. That’s how opera communicates, and it’s the music that does that.

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Your question is very good in a certain sense. It’s “inside baseball” for us to talk about and whoever else is interested in talking about it. But from the point of view of writing an opera, I don’t want the audience to think about this. I want them to enjoy the show, have a great time, care about the characters, laugh and cry with them, and so on. I want them to feel that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I could be Jack Torrance on the stage. This could happen to me. I could be Wendy, I could be Danny. That’s what I want them to be thinking about and feeling. My responsibility as a composer is to come up with a score that does that most effectively, and that’s on a case-by-case basis. Every opera tells a different story, and it will require different techniques from the composer’s toolbox in the sense that you reach into your toolbox and pull out the tools needed to accomplish this particular task.

In the case of The Shining, there is a musical trajectory. It begins tonally, and as Jack’s mental state disintegrates, so does the musical language, his musical language in particular. So by the second act, it’s unmoored harmonically when all hell breaks loose and he’s trying to kill his family. But then the character, Dick Hallorann, who has the final aria at the end of the opera, restores the harmonic balance, so to speak, that we began with at the beginning of the opera. So there is this trajectory that takes the audience through this whole thing.

MG: It reminds me of what Benjamin Britten said about being an opera composer, that have to be able to write a lot of different kinds of music.

PM: In my view, the greater the range of the variety, the diversity of music that you can bring, [the better] because every character is different, and every character’s trajectory is different. And that’s what I do in The Shining. Everybody has their own leitmotifs and leitmotif world, their own harmonic language, so to speak.

The ghosts have their own language that’s not “reality,” then they merge with the real world as it goes on; the musical worlds come together. That’s part of the confusion that drives Jack mad: Are these apparitions real or all in his imagination? And that question remains sort of unanswered.

MG: And at the same time, you’ve still given a overall unified trajectory to the whole opera, to bring all of these things together so it’s not just a pastiche.

PM: I don’t do pastiche. First of all, I’m not very good at it. I just do what I do and it just comes out of me and that is just me. I think there’s enough kind of integrity of uniformity across [it] so it doesn’t sound like this disjointed, jumping from one thing to another. In fact, what I like is the mix of these things, the overlapping which you can do in the orchestra, contrapuntally, you can overlap different musical impulses, different musical worlds. And that’s certainly what I do in The Shining when I’m combining the real world, our world, with the world of the ghosts in the hotel. And, by the way, the hotel has its own language. The Overlook Hotel is a character, and in this production, in particular, you’re going to see that. It’s this living being, it’s really kind of cool what they do. They, they show the pipes, in the boiler room and it’s, like they’re pulsating aortas.

Artist's rendering of the set for the Overlook Hotel's boiler room in The Atlanta Opera's upcoming production of "The Shining." (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

Artist’s rendering of the set for the Overlook Hotel’s boiler room in The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production of “The Shining.” (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

MG: My understanding is this version of The Shining is the Opera Parallèle (San Francisco) production with the reduced orchestration. It’s a smaller orchestra than the original orchestration for Minnesota Opera. You did the reduction yourself, so how did you deal with that particular task?

PM: An important part of the art of orchestration is making an ensemble sound bigger than it really is, and that was my assignment. That was my “Mission Impossible” assignment here no, it actually is very possible, so that’s what I did.

MG: Does it produce a leaner sound overall?

PM: Of course it does, but, in my opinion, I think it works. It still scares the audience. Here’s the thing: In the original orchestration, Minnesota Opera was very generous in saying, “Write for whatever you want.” I wrote for this pretty substantial orchestra and they gave me four trombones and that’s great [for] when you want to scare people. [The trombones play a menacing sound] and they jump out of the seats. So my one assignment I had in this new production is to get the same effect without the sheer volume level going on. So that’s part of it. The emotional effects I get are mostly in the harmony. Everything’s about harmony. This is the brilliant thing about Stephen King and, and in particular, The Shining.

Artist's rendering of the set for the ballroom party scene in The Atlanta Opera's production of "The Shining." (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

Artist’s rendering of the set for the ballroom party scene in The Atlanta Opera’s production of “The Shining.” (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

MG: One of the important aspects about this opera is that you and Mark Campbell based it on the original Stephen King novel, not the Stanley Kubrick film.

PM: They’re basically the same story, but there are substantive differences. We all know the Jack Nicholson poster, right? Kubrick’s brilliant. It’s a great movie, but it’s not really what Stephen King wrote. It’s icy and cynical. That’s not what the novel is. The novel is actually very warm. Jack Torrance is a vulnerable character and think of it as a story about love. It’s about a family trying to stay together in an impossible situation.

Jack Torrance is faced with an impossible dilemma, kind of like Abraham and Isaac that is, his obligation is obviously to protect the son that he loves, and a higher power tells him to sacrifice that child. So what Stephen King is doing is he’s tapping into one of the oldest stories in civilization, and that is Abraham and Isaac, it’s in Genesis.Now there’s a story that is dramatic. That’s what gives rise to song. It’s extreme emotions and extreme situations. I think of Jack Torrance as basically a decent guy trying to do the right thing and he’s faced with an impossible dilemma.

MG: That’s really super informative because it does say something about, the emotional motivations behind your music.

PM: I wouldn’t know how to make an opera out of the Kubrick film, as brilliant as it is, because you know that Jack Torrance is nuts from the beginning. You see Jack Torrance arching his eyebrows right in the first scene. He’s crazy. Stephen King suggested that he wanted John Voight to play Jack Torrence, not Jack Nicholson, and he has a sort of placid neutral face, right? Because the story arc here is a basically decent guy, very troubled guy, but basically a decent guy who goes completely mad and becomes this murderer or attempted murder. There’s a story that’s operatic, and that’s Stephen King. He’s a great storyteller.

MG: Could you summarize your hopes for this Atlanta Opera production?

PM: I try to make beautiful things, and I hope the audience finds this a beautiful work. But going back to what I was saying about the relationship between music and drama, it would thrill me if the audience just had a great time and enjoyed it. When I write a piece, I write for myself as a listener. I don’t write for myself as a composer or as a specialist. I’ve gone through all the trouble to come to the theater, I sit down and say, “Ok, amaze me.” That’s what I try to write. I want to be amazed, and I want to be convinced because if I’m not convinced, I certainly can’t expect anyone else to be.

If I might say another thing, and this comes from Ingmar Bergman when he was asked, “What do you want for your films?” And he said, “I want them to be used.” I love that, because you think of Bergman as this esoteric who doesn’t care about the audience, but no, he said something very practical: “I want my films to be used.” And that’s what I want for my music. I want my music to be useful to people, for them to use in their lives, and I hope they find it beautiful.


About the author:
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. He began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.

Read more by Mark Gresham.