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The Claiborne Case

As San Francisco Opera prepares to unveil Tobias Picker and J. D. McClatchy's Dolores Claiborne this month, BRIAN KELLOW charts the opera's uneasy birthing process.

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Composer Picker at a well near his home in upstate New York
© Gregory Downer 2013
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Claiborne's Tobias Picker
© Gregory Downer 2013

Editor's Note: On August 26, San Francisco Opera announced that Dolora Zajick had withdrawn from its upcoming world-premiere performances of Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy's Dolores Claiborne. Soprano Patricia Racette will now assume the title role for the first four performances of the opera, while mezzo Catherine Cook will sing the final two performances. More information can be found in the Breaking News section of our website.

Over the past two decades, when general directors of American opera companies have turned their attention to commissioning works, they have more often than not gravitated toward respected literary sources — The Great Gatsby, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Little Women, Anna Karenina, Miss Lonelyhearts, An American Tragedy, Elmer Gantry, The Secret Garden. Clearly, these choices of subject matter involve marketing-based thinking — namely, title recognition and the resonance of popular movies based on these works. But there's probably something else operating here — an elevated feeling on the part of the commissioners that only major literary classics are worthy of being adapted into operas. So the slobs among us with an unapologetic taste for pulp fiction were encouraged when San Francisco Opera announced a few seasons ago that it had commissioned Tobias Picker to compose Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King's best-selling novel, first published in 1992.

Dolores Claiborne is a typically ripping King read. Speaking in the first person throughout, in a police confession, Dolores gives us the story of her hardscrabble life growing up on Little Tall, an island off the coast of Maine; her miserable marriage to blue-collar drunk Joe St. George; her decades of slaving away for the imperious rich woman Vera Donovan, whose list of domestic demands includes scrubbing out the bathtubs daily with Spic-n-Span, always positioning the doormat with the word "WELCOME" facing out, and hanging up wet sheets on the line with not four, not five, but six clothespins. Even­tually, Dolores has to grapple with more than hard work and poverty: she discovers that Joe has been molesting their bright young daughter Selena and is on the verge of taking his sexual conquest of her all the way. Armed with some potent power of suggestion from Vera — who, we discover, murdered her way out of her own unhappy marriage — Dolores sets a trap for Joe: on a summer day, when a solar eclipse provides the camouflage of darkness, she accuses Joe of abusing Selena. Then, when he physically attacks her, she tricks him into falling down a thirty-foot abandoned well to his death. Years later, while being questioned in connection with the death of Vera, Dolores tells us why she had to do what she did for the sake of her daughter, and why she feels no remorse over it. 

King captures Dolores's small-town-New-England-girl grit by giving her incredibly vivid dialogue. When she recalls Joe's drinking in the early years of their marriage, she says, "The world's a sorry schoolroom sometimes, ain't it?" Playing a game of bedpan cat-and-mouse with the aged, ailing Vera, Dolores observes, "She was havin one hell of a dry spell; she hadn't dropped nothing in the collection plate since the weekend." And throughout, she refers to Vera as "Miss Vera Kiss-my-Backcheeks Donovan," a woman who would watch Jeopardy! "and rag the contestants if they didn't know who was President durin the Spanish-American War or who played Melanie in Gone with the Wind." 

Although the novel presents no challenger to Dolores's version of the events, there are many conflicting points of view about Dolores Claiborne's complicated and confusing road to becoming an opera. It appears that the idea came more or less simultaneously — there is some disagreement over this — to both its composer, Tobias Picker, and its star, Dolora Zajick. In 2005, Picker had seized on it as an opportunity to work once more with Patricia Racette, who had starred to great advantage in the composer's Emmeline and An American Tragedy. As it happened, Zajick, who had played a key supporting role in An American Tragedy, had been pondering the novel as a vehicle for some time. "I wanted a role I could age in," Zajick remembers, "because there's this big move about young and pretty and fresh. There's a place for that, but there's a place for older people, too. Older people and fat people have lives, too. Why not make a major opera role around one of those characters?" At the suggestion of her gardener at her home in Nevada, she read Dolores Claiborne, loved it and eventually zeroed in on Scott Wheeler as the composer she wanted to set it. According to Zajick, Stephen King's agent stalled on Wheeler's inquiries. As it turned out, Picker was already in negotiations for the rights to the book. "Tobias has more connections and clout than Scott Wheeler," says Zajick. "That's the nature of the beast." 

Picker approached San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley with the idea of Dolores Claiborne as a vehicle for Racette. Gockley, having seen Taylor Hackford's 1995 screen version starring Kathy Bates, preferred Zajick, whom he considered "the Kathy Bates of opera." (Both Racette and Zajick are enormously popular with SFO audiences.) Picker stood by Racette, to whom he had already proposed the idea. Zajick became angry with both Picker and Racette, claiming the idea had been hers first, then after a couple of months accepted Picker's decision. By now, however, Gockley appeared to have cooled on the idea of the opera. "I said, 'It's your company, and you're casting it,'" says Picker. "I have only casting consultation, not casting approval. I didn't hear from David anymore. It just went silent." 

In the meantime, Washington National Opera expressed interest in presenting the work, and Picker came up with the idea of doing a Stephen King double bill consisting of Dolores and Misery, both starring Racette. (In an idea that blessedly didn't come to pass, there was talk of Plácido Domingo playing Misery's imprisoned author, Paul Sheldon, played in the 1990 movie by James Caan.) "Domingo was going to conduct Dolores,and I was going to conduct Misery," recalls Picker, "so he would be doing something he had never done before — singing and conducting on the same evening. I went along with it, but I was worried, because I knew Dolores was bigger and should have a full evening, and Misery was shorter." The recession of 2008 ended any plans for Washington to do a "King cycle," and Picker took his homeless idea — it was now back to Dolores, solo — to Santa Fe Opera. General director Charles MacKay and Brad Woolbright, director for artistic administration, accepted in principle, but scheduling shifts in the tough economic climate eventually brought an end to those discussions, too. In the fall of 2010, Picker went back to Gockley. The two of them had been bandying about ideas for a commission for twenty-five years, dating back to the time that Gockley was general director of Houston Grand Opera and Picker was across the street as composer-in-residence with the Houston Symphony. "I said, 'Maybe it would be a good idea to do something together before we die,'" Picker remembers. In February 2011, over breakfast at Nice Matin in New York, Gockley agreed to take on Dolores — with Zajick as its star. In a recent interview, Racette commented, "It went to the right one."

By now, another snag had revealed itself: Gockley wanted the new opera for the fall of 2013, and Gene Scheer, Picker's regular librettist (An American Tragedy, Thérèse Raquin) wasn't available at that time. Picker called J. D. "Sandy" McClatchy, the noted poet who had provided the libretto for Emmeline, with whom he had not been in touch for a dozen years. (McClatchy recalls the collaboration among Picker, director Francesca Zambello and himself on Emmeline as being "a little stormy.") "When I couldn't write," says Picker, "Gene would always say, 'Let's go for a bike ride.' We would ride down to Chelsea Pier and have gelato. Sandy has a different way of getting me going — he does it verbally with his sense of humor and confidence. It is, after all, one of the librettist's main jobs to get the best music out of the composer — not just to hand in the libretto and then move away and never talk about it. Gene is a lyricist and songwriter, and Sandy is a poet, so the rhythm and choice of the words is very different." 

In many modern works, the characters tend to sound similar, meandering around in endless arioso. Picker's music for Dolores Claiborne is characterized by various shades of agita — the scene in which Joe falls down the well is amazingly aggressive, harmonically — and he has worked hard to create a sharply defined musical vocabulary for each character. "The harmonies come out of the names," he says. "It's word painting — the pitches are derived from the letters of the names. Selena is always an A-minor chord. There's a Vera Donovan chord — very regal. All the characters have different tones, different ways of expressing themselves musically." Both Picker and McClatchy call the Dolores collaboration a harmonious one and say they are discussing a number of future projects. 

For McClatchy, King's story presented an unusual challenge: "I like working with melodrama," he says, "and what I liked about the character of Dolores is that she is a traditional sort of suffering woman in the line of Puccini heroines. But all the sacrifices she makes were to save her daughter, and then at the end to have her daughter turn her back on her is an interesting shift in the usual emotional arc of an opera. That appealed to me." In adapting the novel, McClatchy steered clear of Hackford's movie, which he has seen only once. "I tried not to follow the film at all," he says. "It takes great liberties, introduces new characters and moves at its own pace. I think they must have had an unfulfilled contract with Christopher Plummer [who plays police detective John Mackey], and they needed to stick him into something and decided to do it with that film." 

McClatchy finds Dolores a far more sympathetic character than Selena, who has been changed from a high-powered journalist to a high-powered attorney, and whom McClatchy calls "self-indulgent — someone who has used her own particular power to no particular good." To make Selena a bit more sympathetic, Picker has provided the teenage Selena with a major aria in which she confuses the natural phenomenon of the eclipse with the baffling relationship between her parents. "At bottom," says McClatchy, "this is a little girl who can't figure things out, who grows up to be a big girl who can't figure things out." Susannah Biller (see Sound Bite, p. 14), who plays Selena, observes, "I think it takes years for people who have gone through the kind of abuse that Selena has to be able to live with it. I don't think that trauma ever fully leaves you." Channeling the section of the opera in which Selena tells Dolores that she never asked her to save her, Biller offers, "I think we tend to blame the ones who are the strongest." 

While King's novel gets painfully poetic at the end — Dolores observes, "Time's a reach, too, you know, just like the one that lies between the islands and the mainland, but the only ferry that can cross it is memory" — Picker feels that he has stayed true to the author's bleak vision of a family gone to seed. "Dolores," he says, "may be my darkest work yet." spacer 

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10