Friday, September 20, 2013

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: Opera and Science Fiction

I learned this week that the Minnesota Opera has commissioned a new opera based on Stephen King's novel The Shining, which will be written by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell.  The opera's artistic director, Dale Johnson, says, "[I]t’s perfect for opera, when you think about it. You have a hero who is struggling, a strong mother, both trying to keep the family safe. Today’s audiences want to see stories about them, to look on stage and see familiar characters. And Americans love horror.”  The opera is scheduled to premiere in May 2016.

Hearing this news made me wonder--how many other operas have explicitly scifi or fantasy themes?

Well, for starters, this isn't the first time that King's work will be adapted into opera.  This current season (and actually, this month), the San Francisco opera is premiering the opera Dolores Claiborne.  This story of King's, however, doesn't have much of the supernatural in it; are there other operas that have the supernatural at the heart of them?

There are many operas that have been based on science fiction and fantasy novels.  Here's a glimpse at Lorin Maazel's adaptation of George Orwell's novel 1984 (although it wasn't very well received):

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Philip K. Dick's Valis, and David Cronenberg's film The Fly are also well-known works of science fiction that have been adapted into operatic form.

Of course, magic and fantasy show up in opera all the time, with perhaps the most famous example being Wagner's 4-opera epic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung (Der Ring des Niebelungen), which tells the story of a magic ring that has the power to rule the world.  While a fascinating story in its own right, Wagner's Ring cycle is also particularly interesting for fantasy fans, as there is speculation that it inspired (at least in part) Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  Here is the final scene of the last opera in the sequence, Götterdämmerung, in which you can hear the leitmotivs from earlier in the cycle all coming together as the gods of Valhalla are consumed in flames.  The clip is from the famous 1976 performance in Bayreuth, starring Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde:

But my favorite science fiction and fantasy opera, I think, is ’u’, which is entirely in Klingon and tells the story of Kahless the Unforgettable, a heroic figure in Klingon history.  While I haven't seen it in person, I really love the idea of writing an opera in an entirely foreign language, thus forcing most listeners to understand the story only through the music.  The music features percussion quite prominently, which makes for a very powerful performance:

Enjoy, everyone--and happy Friday!

By Jen Miller