Stephen King's Operatic Side: Adapting the Horror Writer for the Opera

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Geoff Spear
Poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy

Poet J. D. McClatchy enjoyed the process of adapting Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne for the opera stage.

"It's interesting material, and it's a challenge," said McClatchy, who teaches English at Yale. "That's what any writer likes most -- it calls for skills you didn't know you had."

McClatchy will be talking with the San Francisco Chronicle's David Wiegand about the challenges of making Dolores Claiborne into an opera at a Litquake event on Monday, Sept. 9.

This is the third event Litquake has done with the San Francisco Opera, and it's the most Litquake-y, says Jane Ganahl, the co-founder of the reading festival, and a fan of Stephen King's 1992 book and the 1995 movie about a woman accused of killing her employer, and admitting to the murder of her husband, who was abusing their daughter.

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Scott Wall/ San Francisco Opera
Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne

"Stephen King may not be thought of as particularly literary, but it's a very operatic book with high tragedy and high drama and a mother sacrificing all," Ganahl said. She calls McClatchy, who has served as president of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, "uber-literary," and she says poet and Litquake Executive Committee member Robin Ekiss got particularly excited about having him take part in Litquake. Besides Dolores Claiborne, McClatchy has written 13 librettos, and he says his background as a poet helps.

"A poet's job is to be as condensed and concise as possible and to get images there in a compact form," he said. "It's good training for opera. Poetry has helped me make unusual language."

McClatchy, who had never read a Stephen King book before, says he liked this one, one of King's few that doesn't deal explicitly with horror and the supernatural.

"He's interested in extreme situations and how human beings react to them," he said. "So human being in extremities whether it's some monster or a husband."

The story reminds him somewhat of Puccini's Tosca, McClatchy says. But there's a twist.

"When she finally does what she must to save her daughter, her daughter says I never asked you to save me," he said. "That was even more shocking than a reconciliation would be."

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Scott Wall/ San Francisco Opera
Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne

One of McClatchy's challenges was making Dolores, who refers to herself as an "old Yankee bitch," a sympathetic character. He also worked hard on making sure each character had a distinct voice.

And now that the writing is over, McClatchy is working on his favorite part - the revisions.

"This is the pleasure able part for me," he said. "Our responsibility is to the singers who have the hardest part of all, like having to hit an E flat when you're lying on the floor and have just been punched. So I'm always willing to change things."


The Dolores Claiborne Litquake Event will take place Monday, September 9 at 7:00pm at the Glass Door Gallery, 
245 Columbus Ave. (at Broadway). The event is free.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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