Dolores Claiborne

An opera by Tobias Picker
Libretto by J. D. McClatchy
Based on the novel Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
By arrangement with Andrew Welch · Commissioned by San Francisco Opera

WORLD PREMIERE

Desperate. Passionate. Trapped. Dolores Claiborne is willing to do whatever it takes to save herself and her daughter—even if that means taking a life. One of the most compelling characters to emerge from the imagination of Stephen King, the feisty Maine housekeeper is a natural fit for opera—and specifically for the dark theatricality of American composer Tobias Picker, who "embraces opera as a populist art form" and "does so with undeniable skill" (The New York Times). Memorably played by Kathy Bates in the 1995 movie, Dolores will be sung by Patricia Racette (Sep 18, 22, 25, 28), "an artist at the peak of her powers" (Opera News) and Catherine Cook (Oct 1, 4), a singer who knows how to "delight with a treasure chest of voice and gesture" (Bay Area Reporter). This chilling work features a libretto by poet J. D. McClatchy. "Expert conductor" George Manahan is at the podium (Financial Times) and the "imaginative" and "inspired" James Robinson directs (The Wall Street Journal).

Read the full press release about the Dolores Claiborne cast change.

Production contains adult language and themes

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

San Francisco Opera production

Production photos by Cory Weaver

The audio excerpt from Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy with Susan Graham and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Conlon is courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera from its performance of the opera on December 24, 2005. © The Metropolitan Opera

The audio excerpt from Tobias Picker's Therese Raquin with Gordon Gietz and the Dallas Opera Orchestra conducted by Graeme Jenkins is from Chandos Records 9659 (2).


Cast

Dolores Claiborne Patricia Racette SEP 18, 22, 25, 28
Dolores Claiborne Catherine Cook OCT 1, 4
Selena St. George Susannah Biller
Vera Donovan Elizabeth Futral
Joe St. George Wayne Tigges
Detective Thibodeau Greg Fedderly
Mr. Pease Joel Sorensen
Teenage Girl Nikki Einfeld
Teenage Boy Hadleigh Adams
Maid Jacqueline Piccolino
Maid Nikki Einfeld
Maid Marina Harris
Maid Laura Krumm
Maid Renée Rapier
Mr. Cox Robert Watson
Mr. Fox Hadleigh Adams
Mr. Knox A.J. Glueckert

Production Credits

Composer Tobias Picker *
Librettist J. D. McClatchy *
Conductor George Manahan *
Director James Robinson
Set Designer Allen Moyer
Costume Designer James Schuette *
Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind
Projection Designer Greg Emetaz *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Fight Director Dave Maier

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I

Winter 1992: The grand staircase of Vera Donovan’s manor house on Little Tall Island, off the coast of Maine.
Vera lies at the bottom of the stairs. Dolores Claiborne, her maid and housekeeper for forty years, is standing with an object raised over Vera. A young woman enters and screams, “Mother!”

The next day: The interrogation room of the local police station. Detective Thibodeau questions Dolores about Vera’s death. Dolores confesses that she hated Vera but denies murdering her. During the questioning, Dolores reveals details about her life of servitude, her dead husband and estranged daughter, and her relationship with Vera.

Spring 1950: Vera’s estate. The newly-hired Dolores helps the other maids, learning what it takes to please her new boss. Vera watches the girls, scolding and mocking them, and she asks Dolores about her life.

Fall 1962: Dolores’s run-down house. Dolores’s husband, Joe St. George, is looking for a hidden bottle of whiskey and broods about the frustrations in his life. Their daughter, fifteen-year-old Selena, returns home from school. Joe begs for her affection, but she runs from the room as Dolores returns home from work. When Joe bends over to find his bottle, she laughs at his split britches; he viciously lashes out at her. Dolores staggers to her feet and strikes back at Joe. A violent argument ensues as Selena watches.

Winter 1963: The deck of the Little Tall Island ferry. Selena is sitting on a bench, when Dolores unexpectedly appears. Dolores tries to discover why her daughter has been so sullen and distant with her. Selena pushes her mother away but Dolores demands to know the truth, which she understands after Selena dissolves into tears.

Winter 1992: The interrogation room. Thibodeau is determined to force Dolores to confess to Vera’s murder, but Dolores will only speak of how miserable Vera was in her last years.

Spring 1963: The local bank. Determined to save her daughter and escape from her abusive husband, Dolores demands the money she has been saving. The manager, Mr. Pease, explains that Joe has recently withdrawn all of her money. She bullies Pease into showing her Joe’s new account, and she vows to get the money back.

July 4, 1963: The annual lawn party at Vera’s estate. Maids scurry around with drinks and canapés while the hostess circulates. Dolores drops a tray of drinks and is scolded by Vera. Dolores breaks down in tears and Vera tries to comfort her. Dolores confides that her husband has been beating her and, worse, he has stolen all of her money. Vera recalls her own marriage and reminds Dolores that “accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” She also informs Dolores that a full solar eclipse is happening very soon—a darkness during which anything might happen. Dolores tells Vera that something even worse has happened at home, where we now see Joe sitting alone with Selena, molesting her.

ACT II

July 20, 1963: The day of the solar eclipse. Selena and Joe come out of the house playing with eclipse-viewing boxes. Selena goes off, and Dolores treats Joe to whiskey and sandwiches. The day begins to darken, and Dolores accuses Joe of molesting Selena; he responds violently. She tells him that she has taken back the money he stole. Joe demands to know where it is and Dolores says she has hidden it in the woods. The sky blackens and Dolores leads Joe into the trap she has laid—an abandoned well.

The same day. In the dark, Selena is alone. She wonders about the stars coming out in the middle of the day and expresses feelings of something not right in her life.

Several days later: The wooded area behind Dolores’s house. Townsmen are removing Joe’s body from the abandoned well, and Dolores identifies the body. Selena runs in demanding to know what happened to her father. Dolores tells her she will now be safe, but Selena only responds with anger and rushes off.

Winter, 1992: The interrogation room. Thibodeau is losing patience with Dolores and tells her that everyone knows she killed her husband.

A few days earlier: Vera’s bedroom and Selena’s Boston apartment. Now aged and senile, Vera begins to hallucinate about her dead husband, and Dolores comforts her. Meanwhile, alone in her apartment Selena voices her anger over not hearing from her mother on her birthday and decides to go to Maine.

A few days later: The interrogation room. Thibodeau continues to question Dolores when Selena enters. Acting as her mother’s attorney, Selena demands the interrogation end at once. Thibodeau produces a file providing proof of Dolores’s guilt: Vera’s will. She has left everything to Dolores. Selena notes the document is seven years old. It is merely evidence of the fondness the two women had for each other. Dolores says she doesn’t want the money; Selena demands that the charges be dropped and the two women leave.

The next day: Dolores’s abandoned home. Selena teases her mother about giving all of Vera’s money to an orphanage and mocks Dolores for a life that has added up to nothing. Dolores tells her that all she did was so that Selena could have a better life. Selena asks her about what really happened the night Vera died.
            In Vera’s bedroom that final night, Dolores brings Vera her dinner. Vera makes a shocking confession and a desperate plea, and we see the events as they unfolded that fateful night.
            As the memory fades back to the present, mother and daughter try to come to terms with their relationship. In the end, Selena walks out and Dolores is left alone.

Transforming Dolores Claiborne for the Opera Stage

Thomas May

The story really matters. That premise may seem self-evident, but there’s a long-standing cliché, at least as far as opera is concerned, that the story is what you have to put up with to get to the music—never mind that Verdi and Puccini obsessed over their choice of subject matter and tormented their librettists whenever it was time to consider a new project for the stage. One of the happy side effects triggered by the American Renaissance in opera that’s been unfolding for the past two to three decades has been to puncture the silly notion that the story is, at best, incidental to the experience.

Click here to download a PDF of this article


Patricia Racette as the title character of Dolores Claiborne
Photo by Scott Wall

 
“For me,” asserts Tobias Picker, “opera is about telling stories in music.” By doing just that, Picker has made himself into one of the key instigators of said Renaissance. Emmeline secured his reputation as a composer who possesses a powerful and effective theatrical instinct. The first of his five operas to date, Emmeline won an enthusiastic reception when it premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1996.
 
Dolores Claiborne—dedicated to San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, who Picker describes as “the man who has done more for American opera than any other in our history”—shows the composer at the height of his powers as an operatic storyteller, but it also represents a new departure. Of Picker’s preceding operas, three are set in the past (both Emmeline and Thérèse Raquin take place in the 19th century and An American Tragedy in the early 20th) and one in the imaginative world of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (a “children’s story” that’s very much for adults).
 
Stephen King’s novel, first published in 1992 and made into a critically acclaimed film in 1995, attracted him above all because of its more contemporary resonance, according to Picker. Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser, whose novels were transformed into the operas Thérèse Raquin (Dallas Opera, 2001) and An American Tragedy (the Metropolitan Opera, 2005), respectively, once wielded great influence but can no longer be considered a central part of the culture. In An American Tragedy, I realized that I was limited in terms of the bones of the story, which wouldn’t really work in contemporary terms,” Picker remarks. “Stephen King is a major storyteller for today. Having written operas that were set in the past, I wanted a modern story that applies to modern times.”
 
Before he wrote An American Tragedy, Picker had already latched onto the idea of Dolores Claiborne as a subject with thrilling operatic potential. Various delays prevented him from taking up that project—Picker was finally able to start composing Dolores Claiborne in September 2011 and took about a year to complete it—but in a sense he benefited from the additional experience of grappling with An American Tragedy. The music critic Alex Ross deemed the latter, despite its trappings as a “Gilded Age melodrama,” to be “a serious, substantial piece.”
 
For Dolores Claiborne, Picker teamed up with the esteemed poet, librettist, and literary critic J.D. (“Sandy”) McClatchy. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, McClatchy is also a veteran of the opera stage and has written librettos for more than a dozen composers, beginning with William Schuman in 1989 (A Question of Taste) and including two upcoming premieres this fall: The Death of Webern to music by Michael Dellaira and, with composer Jeanine Tesori, the children’s opera The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me.
 
As for King’s novel, McClatchy points out that the operatic possibilities lurking within the story were immediately apparent—though “the narrative had to be tweaked” to adapt it to its new medium. “King has always been interested in people in extreme situations. So is opera. And he is an astute observer of the varieties of human psychology. Again, so is opera,” says McClatchy. “The dramatic plot and fascinating characters in Dolores Claiborne seemed just right for the opera stage.”
 
The choice of a best-selling novel that also commands widespread recognition as a film might sound like merely opting for populist fare in lieu of bygone literary classics. But Picker affirms that both the dramatic scenario peculiar to Dolores Claiborne and its modern relevance are what convinced him that he’d discovered a story ideally suited to the opera stage. He notes that the novel itself departs from the trademarks usually associated with King’s fiction: “I wasn’t interested in the supernatural aspect or graphic violence in King. His writing here is different from most other King stories in that it’s not particularly gruesome or supernatural. What interests me about King as a writer is how he can get inside people’s heads. And the triangle of the three women at the heart of this story—Dolores, her boss Vera Donovan, and her daughter Selena—is very powerful. I always look for a triangle in the dramatic structure.” And rather than play down the story’s melodramatic aspects, Picker draws attention to the way these intensify our sense of what’s at stake in the story: “Essentially it’s a psychological Gothic melodrama set in modern times.”
 
Dolores Claiborne’s House by H.S. Picker (acrylic on canvas, 2011). Henriette Simon Picker, mother of Tobias Picker, studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York before pursuing a successful 45- year career as a shoe designer. Her catalogue, spanning 80 years, continues to grow; since 2011, she has produced more than 100 new works. Picker’s first solo exhibition at age 95 at Hudson River Studio in 2012 led to a retrospective exhibition at PMW Gallery in March 2013. She currently exhibits at Waxlander Gallery in Santa Fe.
Image used with kind permission from hspicker.com

 
McClatchy understands how Picker, as an opera composer, would find this combination so richly appealing: “Tobias’s music has the muscular strength to carry a violent plot, and the emotional tension to divulge the inner lives of its characters.” With its plot of false accusations, physical and sexual abuse, and desperation that leads to murder, Dolores Claiborne readily elicits comparisons with Italian verismo, and with characters like Tosca who are forced to take extreme action in a world dominated by male authority. But McClatchy thinks it would be more apt to compare Dolores “with a Janáček heroine” and the Czech composer’s operatic depictions “of the dynamics of strong women in a claustrophobic society.” He adds that what really fascinates him about the story is its ending: “Just where we expect, from a lifetime spent watching conventional melodramas (which I adore), an affirming reconciliation of mother and daughter, we have instead a shocking reversal of that expectation. Here is a mother who would do anything to save her child, even murder, and in ‘saving’ her she loses her. The cruel ironies make Dolores an even more sympathetic character.”
 
Incidentally, those familiar only with the film version (starring Kathy Bates as the title character) may be rather surprised by how much the opera’s story differs from what they remember. The role of Detective Thibodeau is focused on the issue of Vera Donovan’s death, while in the film a new subplot is developed in which this character attempts to vindicate his previous failure to convict Dolores for the murder of her husband, Joe St. George. Selena’s part in the opera—here a lawyer rather than a journalist—also lacks the film’s overlays of motivation. For the most part she appears as a girl, in the context of the past that’s being reenacted, and without her adult character’s addiction to drink and pills to escape its trauma.
 
After generously granting the rights to adapt his novel for a fee of one dollar, Stephen King officially approved the libretto but otherwise never became directly involved in the project. Picker and McClatchy decided right at the beginning to hew closely to the novel. “I’ve only seen the film once, and a while ago,” McClatchy recalls. “It is well done but ‘opens up’ the book in ways that some will feel is ingenious and I feel distract from the novel’s essential arc. The opera returns to King’s sad, tortured, violent story in which everyone is hurtled into a whirlpool of loss and violence and no one is redeemed.” At the same time, McClatchy is intrigued by the affinities between opera and film in a more general sense: “Opera is closer to film than it is to prose. Though it moves so much more slowly, opera has either learned from film or taught it lessons in montage and pacing, the texture of time, the pitch of the close-up. Film has more speed and variety, but opera has more intensity. Film has more subtlety, opera more grandeur and intimacy. Film has more excitement, opera more emotional depth.”
 
McClatchy’s perspective as a poet also shaped the libretto. “My training as a poet was an ideal preparation for writing libretti. The whole point of a poem is its concision, its metaphorical power, its ability to transform in a heartbeat our view of the world. That doesn’t mean I want a libretto to sound ‘literary.’ (Auden is my hero, but I’ve always found the libretto for The Rake’s Progress too fussy.) But I want the words to have resonance, and to create a pattern of images that gives depth to a character.”
 
As much as Dolores Claiborne, with its more modern context, heralds a new direction for Picker, the opera consolidates some signature features that can be found in his preceding stage works. He was surprised by a few of the uncanny resemblances it turned out to share with his first opera. Both Emmeline and Dolores, he says, are strong women who defy “the conventional life that would have made their situations even worse,” and both operas are even set in Maine. (In an unforeseen development, Patricia Racette, who created the roles of Emmeline and of Roberta in An American Tragedy, was called upon to do the same for Dolores, together with Catherine Cook, after Dolora Zajick withdrew from the production.) The psychological emphasis of Dolores Claiborne, moreover—and the dark truths this unveils—intensifies a similar focus in Emmeline, Thérèse Raquin, and An American Tragedy.
 
Picker is returning to his roots in still another sense by renewing his collaboration with Sandy McClatchy. “Tobias and I met where all people meet—at a party,” recalls the librettist. Immediately they began plotting out a collaboration—McClatchy mentions that their first idea was for a “Proust Requiem” for French radio, though nothing came of it—and their first success as a team came with Emmeline, which McClatchy adapted from a novel by Judith Rossner. Why did their collaboration suddenly stop? There were some more attempts to try out new projects, “but nothing worked out. Both of us have strong personalities, and our relationship hit the rocks.”
 
For his last two operas, the composer had partnered with the much sought-after Gene Scheer, but scheduling conflicts kept them from teaming up for the Stephen King opera. Picker turned again to his former colleague.  Almost at once, we resumed a confident friendship and have worked happily on Dolores.” says McClatchy. “Tobias is a superb composer with canny theatrical instincts, so it is an especially exciting pleasure to work with him again.” So much so, he adds, that they’ve already started planning two more operas together.
 
 
Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy

“The words are another color for me,” remarks Picker. “Especially with Sandy’s words, I’m very respectful of the rhythm of the poetry. I am with Gene as well—they each have their own unique voice, and those voices do have an influence on the way I write.” For his part, McClatchy has a clear sense of his responsibility as librettist: “My job is to give the composer musical possibilities, to think of the characters as singers, and to work up a drama for voices.” For example, a significant reworking of King’s unbroken first-person narrative was the choice to frame the entire opera with the scene of Vera’s death. For the audience, McClatchy points out, this device manages to “open the opera with a bang” and at the same time to lead them “through a mystery they must, in time, solve themselves”—a gesture that may be “more Hitchcock than King.” On a musical level, it reinforces the emotional logic of Picker’s taut network of leitmotifs, which continually clue us in to new angles and cross-references.
 
McClatchy similarly creates the musical “space” for the ensembles that are especially important to the composer. “I don’t like operas where you have just one person singing at a time for hours,” Picker explains. His fondness for the contrapuntal variety of ensembles—a trait throughout all of his operas—takes many forms in Dolores Claiborne: the quintet of maids who spell out Vera’s imperious demands; Vera’s July 4th party with the comic touch of the trio of Knox, Cox, and Fox juxtaposed against the hair-raising quartet that ends the first act; the chorus during the eclipse; or the trio for the women split between locations—the definitive musical embodiment of the dramatic triangle Picker refers to and the three generations of women, each of whom struggles in her own way with the predicament of powerlessness.
 
As for giving his characters distinct musical identities, Picker devised a system of melodic, harmonic, and even rhythmic motifs derived from the spelling and accents of particular names. Selena, for example, conjures triads of A minor, while Vera, into whose world we are plunged in the opera’s opening measures, is associated with a powerful chord that the composer uses to portray her “regality.” Vera’s world of privilege “is the world Dolores Claiborne has to cope with and survive, just as she does with Joe St. George.” Joe’s motif is a dramatically downward-plunging G-E-F-sharp, but he’s also characterized by the singsong tune “Daddy go up, Daddy go down” which he uses when sexually abusing his daughter. “I wanted to write a catchy tune that can sound innocent and sinister at the same time,” says Picker, “and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night with it stuck in your head.”
 
Neither Picker nor McClatchy worries that their unforgiving portrayal of Joe will be perceived as too extreme or “two-dimensional.” McClatchy recalls that “Tobias, Jim [Robinson, the stage director], and I all felt the same way: sometimes a man is simply evil, through and through, and we wanted to leave him as he is, a total monster. He has none of Scarpia’s suavity. He depends on booze and brutality to have his way. Americans love victims, but that softness doesn’t belong in this story. The complex characters here are the women, as they should be. Women are so much more in touch with their own emotions than men are.”
 
It’s especially fitting that Dolores Claiborne’s music is so closely linked to her name (motivically, with all possible variants of D and C, flat and sharp): that’s how she asserts her identity, from her very first words in the opera. Harmonically, this is reinforced by the heavy chords of C minor that end each of the two acts. “She comes into her own as ‘Dolores Claiborne,’” Picker explains. “In that sense she’s a modern woman who takes her own name back to define herself.”
 
To help carry over from one scene to another in a time frame that spans over forty years, Picker uses leitmotivic devices as well. The brittle rhythms in the Prelude are part of Thibodeau’s interrogation music—“like rats crawling around in the orchestra and foraging for some crumb of evidence”—and are used “to bring us back to the present in the story line.” Picker adds that his approach to the orchestra is to treat it both as narrator and a character alive in its own right, though “less is more, I always feel, since I don’t want to cover the singers.”
 
Referring to the inevitable adjustments and last-minute fine-tunings that are part of sending any opera out into the world for the first time, McClatchy rhapsodizes about the process of musicians feeling their way into the music, of singers “beginning to feel the text in their throats” along with the pitches: “The task of both librettist and composer is to make the singers thrill and move their audiences. Theirs is the hardest task of all. I’m nervous in front of a typewriter. What would I do if I had to worry about hitting a B-flat in front of 3,000 people?”
 
Thomas May, a regular contributor to San Francisco Opera Magazine, is an internationally published arts writer. He blogs at memeteria.com.

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Tobias Picker and Dolores Claiborne

Norman Ryan

Norman Ryan is vice president of Schott Music Corporation & European American Music Distributors, the exclusive publisher of Tobias Picker's music.
 

Dolores Claiborne, driven, outspoken, tough as nails, perhaps even possessed by otherworldly demons—but beneath the callous veneer, she is a vulnerable mother who will go to any extreme to protect her only daughter. The prolific pen of Stephen King has produced all manner of wonderfully bizarre characters and situations, often rooted in the supernatural. But upon first reading Dolores Claiborne many years ago, I was struck by the depth and intensity of King's exploration of his eponymous heroine. Here was a rich psychological character study, at once deeply personal and disturbing, boldly limning the outlines of a desperate woman navigating storm upon storm. Dolores, I thought, had the makings of an operatic character, and after seeing Kathy Bates play her in the Taylor Hackford film, I was even more convinced.

So imagine my delight when Tobias Picker first told me of his idea to write his fifth opera on the subject of Dolores Claiborne. Among many subjects Tobias and I had discussed for operatic treatment over the years, I believed that Dolores held the greatest promise. And I knew that Dolores was a character Tobias would relish, a perfect vehicle for his operatic instincts. She would stand tall among a growing family of other classic Picker heroines: Emmeline Mosher, Thérèse Raquin, and Roberta Alden.

Dolores Claiborne is a subject that only a rare, few composers could successfully tackle; such a detailed and personal story told from the point of view of one star singer could easily derail when subjected to the exacting demands of an operatic setting. On top of that, each of the principal characters cry out for bold, contrasting colors: Dolores's divided emotional core, Vera Donovan's haughtiness, Selena's trenchant indifference, and Joe's outright cruelty could only be captured by a composer who understands the dramatic potential of the smallest musical idea and how to develop that idea on a larger canvas.

Picker's obsession with working out the leanest musical motives is an aspect of his compositional style I have always greatly admired. His ability to spin long forms from the smallest musical kernel is particularly evident in such chamber works as the piano quintet Nova, the violin sonata Invisible Lilacs, the Two Songs on texts of W.S. Merwin, and the more recent piano quintet Live Oaks. In all of these compositions, Picker takes listeners on an intensely private journey where deep expression and lyricism are the musical drivers. In similar fashion, one is drawn into his larger forms such as The Encantadas for narrator and orchestra, the violin and cello concertos, the Symphony No. 2: Aussöhnung, and the ballet Awakenings. For this composer, music making and music creation is a personal and cathartic experience, as essential for living life as food and water. It was clear to me from the outset that Dolores Claiborne could not have landed in better hands.

And now, Dolores Claiborne comes to life at San Francisco Opera. Picker commented to me recently that this may be his darkest work to date, which is saying a lot for a composer whose characters have been, among other things, ostracized, drowned, and stabbed. But lurking not far beneath the surface of every Picker work, no matter how dark, is an ardent voice of beauty and light expressed in always new and powerfully wrought musical forms. It is in the discovery of that light emerging from the shadows that we come to know and understand the indomitable life force that is Dolores Claiborne.

Schott is proud to be the publisher of Tobias Picker’s newest opera, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Dolores Claiborne is poised to take its place alongside Picker’s already distinguished catalog of contemporary American operas that include Emmeline, Thérèse Raquin, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and An American Tragedy.

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An "American" Tosca

Jane Ganahl

An interview with composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchy on their latest creation, Dolores Claiborne

Download a PDF of the article here
 

When Dolores Claiborne was published in 1992, it took legions of Stephen King’s horror fans off-guard. There were no monsters, characters with supernatural powers, ghosts, possessed pets, werewolves, or demons in King’s twentieth novel. Instead, there was a down-to-earth heroine: a gutsy, ornery, outspoken, working-class woman from coastal Maine who loved with passion, fought with passion… and may have killed in passion as well.

"Dolores is a kind of American Tosca,” says Tobias Picker, composer of the world premiere operatic version of King’s novel, set to take the War Memorial stage on Sept. 18. “She is forced to make cataclysmic choices to save the one she loves.”
(Left to Right) Stephen King, Tobias Picker, J.D. McClatchy

Adds librettist J.D. McClatchy: “She is not your average operatic heroine. She is complex: not always likeable, but always sympathetic. It was a challenge but an absolute delight to help bring her to life on stage.” 
King’s novel is a tour de force of writing: one long, 300-page chapter told in the first person by Dolores with minimal time shifts. It depicts one long night in her life, as she is questioned in a police station about the death of Vera, an elderly woman in her care. During the questioning, dark and unspeakable secrets come to light: about the abusive husband who mysteriously disappeared, about her love/hate relationship with the newly-dead woman, and about her estranged daughter, who is repressing secrets of her own.

“This is not your typical Stephen King horror story,” says McClatchy, “But it is a wonderfully suspenseful mystery. We chose to begin the opera at the end of the story. And at the end of the opera we repeat the scene again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in an opera before. I wanted the audience to do a little bit of detective work.”

The novel, which became a New York Times bestseller despite its author’s shift toward the literary, also became a 1995 feature film starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, and David Strathairn. How will the libretto differ from the screenplay, which took some liberties with King’s original text?
 
Members of the creative team for Dolores Claiborne include (from left to right) costume designer James Schuette, set designer Allen Moyer, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, director James Robinson, and projection designer Greg Emetaz.

“It’s much better,” quips McClatchy. “We went back to the original novel for material, which was fairly dark. There’s incest, spousal abuse. It’s a little raw, pretty adult. It will challenge the audience, but there is abuse in other operas too— Madama Butterfly ripped my heart out in that regard. And this is a much more American story of violence and revenge.”

Picker, whose distinguished career led him to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012 and named artistic director of the Opera San Antonio, is quick to note that where King might be best known for his horror, “he is also a remarkable reader of human desires and fears—one of America’s finest living storytellers. I’ve always wanted to create an opera around a Stephen King book, and he has a tremendous amount of material, so there was a lot to draw from.”

It was when a friend encouraged him to go and see the feature film that Picker decided this was the material he wanted. “This is his most operatic work,” he says firmly. “I had considered The Shining, but it’s not really operatic, not to my way of thinking.”

Picker approached King about adapting Dolores Claiborne, and the author was receptive. “He wanted to know what the treatment would be, and he was sent a brief outline. After that, he said okay and optioned it to me for $1.”

For the Dolores Claiborne libretto, Picker approached his old friend J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy, who also worked with him on his first opera in 1996, Emmeline, which received its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera and was telecast nationally by PBS Great Performances. Separate and apart from his work penning thirteen libretti to date, McClatchy is one of the most revered poets of his generation, with six books of poetry to his credit, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Hazmat. He says it was not a huge leap from poetry on the page to words on the stage.

“As a poet you learn condensation and how to summarize a feeling in one exquisite moment,” he says from his New York home. “We’re used to saying as much as possible in as few words as possible. And then you have to let the music take over.”
 
Set design for Dolores Claiborne by Allen Moyer

McClatchy, who has also served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, says he stumbled into libretto work quite by accident. Already an acclaimed poet thirty years ago, he got a fateful phone call. “He said ‘my name is William Schuman and I write music.’ He had been commissioned to do a one-act opera, A Question of Taste, for Glimmerglass Opera. Schuman had asked the poet Richard Wilbur, to do the libretto, and Dick was busy with something and suggested me, knowing I was a passionate lover of opera. I said I’d never done anything like this, but I’d be delighted to.”

McClatchy took to the new art form joyfully—and was amused that from that moment on he was referred to as a librettist. “It was as if I’d only changed a light bulb and was suddenly being called an electrician!” he laughs. “But I learned quickly: there was a lot of practical help I got from everyone from the wigmaker to the clarinetist; you learn while doing in the theater.”

The greatest challenge to writing a compelling libretto for the opera? “You want to give each character a different voice,” he says. “And the words eventually become less important than the dramatic arrangement of voices. I think of the drama always in terms of the musical mix.”

He says he is deeply committed to always thinking of the singers who are giving voice to his words. “You have to be conscious of placing this vowel on that note, to make the singers sound and look good. They are the ones who take the enormous risks. So anything we can do to make them feel more immersed in their roles is worthwhile.”

Of working with Picker, McClatchy says, “It went beautifully. We both have apartments in New York and I have gone to his house in the country when we really needed to put in a lot of work. We also work very well by telephone or Skype. And we were lucky to have Jim, the director, readily available.”

Did the two men have any qualms about creating an opera around a character considered unsympathetic by some? In the book, even Claiborne refers to herself as “an old Yankee bitch” and admits she has a foul temper and an even fouler mouth. Both creators bristle at the suggestion.

“I see her as a sympathetic character—quite sympathetic and quite a character!” says Picker. “She’s a very loving mother, and the relationship between her and Vera developed into a very loving one. I also think the two old women loved each other, and the journey between them changed so much over the years.”
 

The 1995 film adaption of Dolores Claiborne starred Oscar-winner Kathy Bates in the title role (pictured here with Jennifer Jason Leigh as her daughter Selena St. George), directed by fellow Oscar-winner Taylor Hackford.
 
Of the other characters, Picker admits that he is concerned about the audience warming to them. “The daughter is not a terribly sympathetic person, although one understands why she is the way she is: unforgiving and angry. As far as Joe goes, I resisted any suggestion that he be made to be more sympathetic. He was just a bad, mean person.”

When it is noted that both Emmeline and Dolores Claiborne take place in Maine, and involve incest and scandal, Picker hesitates. “Without trying to psychoanalyze my attraction to certain stories and without ruling out the possibility that there is some psychoanalytical basis for the attraction… I would say it’s a coincidence.” He chuckles.

He says both stories do contain similar elements but are “quite different.” “Both characters were shunned by society for what they did, but while Emmeline unknowingly commits incest, Dolores learns of it and takes matters into her own hands. Emmeline is a more passive leading lady, especially compared to Dolores.”

McClatchy firmly believes in his heroine’s good qualities. “She is a woman who fights back against abuse; a real tiger mother. She will do anything for love, including murder. It’s about the extraordinary sacrifices that a mother will make—only to sometimes end up alone.”

He adds: “Her last words in the opera are, ‘I did the best I could.’ I think the audience will sympathize and love her for who she is.”
 
Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, author, editor, and producer in San Francisco for thirty years. She is the co-founder of Litquake, the West Coast’s largest independent literary festival, author of the memoir Naked on the Page, and contributor to many magazines, from Bazaar to Rolling Stone and Ladies’ Home Journal.
 

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"Tobias Picker's gripping new opera, Dolores Claiborne, opened in a world-premiere performance that proved a triumph for the composer, librettist, singers, and, indeed, the entire company."

  –The Classical Review
"Oh, what singing there is in 'Dolores Claiborne!'"

  –San Jose Mercury News
"'Dolores' and Racette: Double Triumph!"

  –SF Classical Voice
Patricia Racette "sang like a house on fire."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Wayne Tigges gave a superb performance...singing with a robust, menacing grandeur that conjured up both his villainy and his uncertain self-worth."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"As Selena, Susannah Biller is remarkable: a red-hot, supple and full-voiced singer, scaling the extreme heights assigned by the score."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Susannah Biller "was a bright toned, poignant Selena; her aria during the eclipse garnered a well-earned explosion of applause."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"As evil Joe, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges sings with taut muscularity; he reeks of sin."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Adler Fellows Marina Harris, Laura Krumm, Renée Rapier, Jacqueline Piccolino, Hadleigh Adams and A.J. Glueckert shine in ensemble numbers."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Tobias Picker's gripping new opera, Dolores Claiborne, opened in a world-premiere performance that proved a triumph for the composer, librettist, singers, and, indeed, the entire company."

  –The Classical Review
As Vera Donovan, Elizabeth Futral "generates out-sized power."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"The entire cast is superb, and beautifully directed by James Robinson."

  –The Classical Review
"Greg Fedderly plays the detective with fire in the belly."

  –SFist

Performances

  • Wed 09/18/13 7:30pm *

  • Sun 09/22/13 2:00pm *

  • Wed 09/25/13 7:30pm *

  • Sat 09/28/13 8:00pm *

  • Tue 10/1/13 8:00pm

  • Fri 10/4/13 8:00pm


 

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

The world premiere of Dolores Claiborne is made possible, in part, by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Koret Foundation, and Tad and Dianne Taube. Additional support is provided by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

  
 

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.