Among living authors, few offer as large a body of work as promising for adapting to opera as Stephen King, whose characters are well established in the public consciousness and embody a wide emotional scope.
This observation was realized years ago by composer Tobias Picker, who has earned a reputation for writing bracing operas with strong female roles. Adapting a King work for the operatic stage had been a simmering, decadelong desire for Picker, 59, an avowed fan of the best-selling writer.
When Picker finished his opera “An American Tragedy,” for New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2005, he decided the time was right to seriously start thinking about how to adapt King’s 1992 psychological thriller “Dolores Claiborne” to the grand opera stage.
He went looking for an opera company. His first stop was the San Francisco Opera, run by general director David Gockley, a friend of Picker’s from when he was composer-in-residence at the Houston Symphony and Gockley was the general director of the Houston Grand Opera.
“He and I had been talking about doing an opera together for a long time,” Picker said.
Gockley, a maverick commissioner of operas, loved the idea. It seemed like a perfect fit given the long list of commissions Gockley has overseen, including the 9/11 opera “Heart of a Soldier,” last year’s provocative adaptation of Melville’s “Moby Dick” and his most famous commission: John Adams’ “Nixon in China.”
Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne” gets its world premiere Sept. 18 at the War Memorial Opera House, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy. The cast features noted mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick in the title role and soprano Elizabeth Futral as Vera. George Manahan conducts the James Robinson production.
Picker, who is known for the highly regarded operas “Emmeline” and “An American Tragedy,” was introduced to “Dolores Claiborne” through the underrated 1995 film starring Kathy Bates and directed by Taylor Hackford. The film adaptation stayed close to King’s novel, which is written like a continuous monologue by its title character.
“When I first saw the movie I wasn’t so sure it could be an opera, but when I read the book I realized it could,” he said. “It had all the bones.”
The novel tells the tale of Claiborne, who seeks to clear her name amid allegations that she killed her wealthy employer. In doing so, she confesses to the murder of her husband, which happened 30 years prior.
The 1992 book proved a hit with the public and became the biggest seller in the United States that year. For King it remains one of his few books in which the supernatural is not a driving factor. Nonetheless, it is still classic King fare — with characters confronting formidable pressures against the seemingly quaint and benign backdrop of a small New England town.
“I’m very drawn to strong, clearly defined characters who have intense and emotional inner lives and problems,” Picker said.
And if those characters are women, all the better. Picker has a talent for writing music for tragic female characters on harsh journeys. The title character of his 1996 opera “Emmeline,” adapted from a book by Judith Rossner, shares a similar fraught story arc with “Claiborne.” Both must transcend adversity by defying the claustrophobic societal expectations imposed on women, Picker said.
In “Emmeline” the title character gives birth to an illegitimate son who is soon taken away to be raised by others. Two decades later, she unknowingly marries him. After that secret is revealed, Emmeline is abandoned by her son/husband and ostracized in her town until her death.
Unlike “Emmeline,” the title character in “Dolores Claiborne” recounts, with a vivid potty mouth, a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and the dawning of powerful womanhood. It’s a role that demands a powerful presence on the screen and on the opera stage. As regards the film, Bates imbued the role with an outsized presence. She has said that “Dolores Claiborne” was one of her greatest roles.
In selecting Zajick for the title role, the production will see a talented soprano — and one who has made a mark with the Verdi repertoire. She is closely linked with the San Francisco Opera stemming from a stunning debut she made with the company as Azucena in 2003’s “Il Trovatore” and with her standout performance as Joan of Arc in the company’s 2006 production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans.”
The almost larger-than-life aspect of “Claiborne” proved a welcome challenge to librettist McClatchy, who had previously worked with Picker on “Emmeline.” McClatchy said he embraced the job of adapting a work well known in the pop-culture consciousness.
“With a Stephen King novel you find a person in extreme situations — and I was drawn to the psychology of that, of how we cope, how we feel,” McClatchy said. “The realism of the book was very attractive to me.”
In crafting the libretto, he stayed close to the book and eschewed any close reading of the film adaptation.
McClatchy, a well-known poet who teaches at Yale and has written several librettos, said he first went through the text to get a sense of the characters.
As a librettist, McClatchy said his primary job is to stay out of the way of the composer. It was a lesson he learned the hard way upon taking his first libretto job in 1998: “A Question of Taste” for composer William Schuman. When he handed in his first draft, Schumann rejected it. In retrospect, McClatchy sees that first draft as having done everything but getting out of the way of Schuman.
“It was a very good lesson,” he said. “My job in writing a libretto is to make the composer want to write music. That is very different from, say, writing a play version of a novel.”
The novel presented McClatchy certain hurdles, including having Claiborne alternate between singing as a young and old woman in the same act.
“It’s a plot that keeps doubling back — from 1940 to 1992. There are time changes, which is a challenge.”
And as is the case with many King novels, a sense of place is a big factor in the story. “Claiborne” is set in the windswept fictional island town of Little Tall Island — the same island used as the setting for King’s 1999 “Storm of the Century,” a miniseries he wrote specifically for television.
“This is, for the most part, a raw landscape with raw personalities in it,” McClatchy said. “This is an emotional landscape as well as a physical one, and I tried to reflect that in the libretto.”
For Picker, this will be the second opera with a Maine setting. “Emmeline” was set in the inland town of Fayette. Picker describes the feeling of the opera’s music as being an interplay of darkness and light.
“It’s passionate and emotional music. Sometimes it’s very dark, at times it’s funny,” Picker said.
The levity breaks the shadowy mood in two party scenes.
“I have to thank Gilbert and Sullivan for that,” said Picker.
Nonetheless, it is a work seamed with tragedy, as befits King.
“It’s grand opera, and it’s quite dark,” Picker said.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz