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How to Turn a Stephen King Thriller Into an Opera

Dolores Claiborne premieres at the Opera, with a little detour through Hollywood.

This month, the San Francisco Opera is taking on Dolores Claiborne, Stephen King’s bestselling 1992 psychological thriller about a Maine housekeeper accused of murder. Sound familiar? That’s because the novel was already reenvisioned in a 1995 movie with Kathy Bates. In a world so full of King adaptations, how do the two differ? We let the leading lady and the librettist make their case.

Dolora Zajick, mezzo-soprano: There’s an association that I’m the Kathy Bates of opera. She has been extraordinary—she does really well at playing tormented women, which is what I do in opera. It’s the nature of what opera writers exploit and write about in certain ways, which doesn’t lend itself to ingenue characters. But I won’t play it like Kathy Bates. The opera is based more on the book than the movie. In the book, she comes off more like a real mouthy waitress. There was this waitress in Reno who used to slam down plates. The way she threw herself around was unapologetic, colorful—that’s how I’ll play Dolores.

J.D. Mcclatchy, librettist: King has a real probing psychological interest in characters. It’s not the grotesquerie or thrills—it’s the characters put into extreme situations. People wonder, ‘What would I do in that situation?’ It’s the mainstay of dramatic tension. It makes for something not seen in opera before: It’s like a whodunit for the audience.

 

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of San Francisco 

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