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13 Operas Adapted From Famous Novels

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Тахонов Иван, YouTube

We’re all accustomed to our favorite books being made into movies. From 2015 Oscar nominees like Carol and Room to Sherlock Holmes and Dracula adaptations dating back more than a century, filmmakers have been bringing books to screen since the dawn of cinema. But you might not know that opera composers also love a good novel adaptation. 

While centuries-old classics by the likes of Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi continue to be performed, 20th and 21st century composers have created their own operas, frequently drawing inspiration from modern novels rather than the fairy tales, Ancient Greek myths, and classic dramas that were once traditional opera fodder. There’s something fascinating and a bit surreal about seeing a familiar book set to music, its story sung in the distinct style of opera. From beloved classics to contemporary bestsellers, here are 13 famous novels that have been transformed into operas. 

1. THE GREAT GATSBY 

The classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of wealth and excess in the Jazz Age was adapted in 1999 by John Harbison and opened at the Metropolitan Opera to mixed reviews. Though the opera diverged from the novel in a few ways (for instance, changing the ending slightly), it hewed closely to the plot and tone of its source material, even using 1920’s style pop music interludes. The New York Times called it “too respectful of Fitzgerald for its own good.”

2. ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Unsuk Chin’s 2007 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland mimics the dreamlike qualities of the original novel. Simultaneously dark and whimsical, the opera (which can be viewed in full here) sets much of the original dialogue from the novel to music, including the famous riddles from the Mad Hatter’s tea party above.

3. THE GRAPES OF WRATH

John Steinbeck’s story of a depression era family’s migration to California in search of work and new hope is certainly epic in scope. And, according to The New York Times, its operatic adaptation, written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie in 2007, is similarly ambitious, telling the story of the Joad family in a musical style that takes its inspiration from American balladry and Hollywood musicals.

4. LOLITA

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita makes for a strange, and strangely fitting, operatic tale. Like many classic operas, the novel tells a story of forbidden love. But the novel’s unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert isn’t the opera's average ill-fated lover, and his disturbing obsession with the 12-year-old object of his affections veers into pretty dark territory. Written by Rodion Shchedrin, who is also known for his adaptations of Russian novels like Anna Karenina and Dead Souls, the opera premiered in Stockholm in Swedish (because, according to the Associated Press, Hollywood had the rights for an adaptation in a major language) in 1994. It later played in Moscow, where it was nominated for Russia’s Golden Mask Award.

5. DEATH IN VENICE

Like Lolita, Thomas Mann’s 1912 book Death in Venice centers on an older man’s romantic obsession with a pre-teen—in this case, a young boy named Tadzio, who the main character sees, but never speaks to, on a trip to Venice. The opera, written by Benjamin Britten in 1973, solved the problem of having a primary character who does not speak by casting Tadzio as a silent dancer, rather than a singer. The opera was released as a movie, shot on location in Venice, in 1981. 

6. LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS

Based on the 1994 novella Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this opera adaptation was composed by Peter Eötvös and premiered in 2008. Critics lauded Eötvös’s score but complained that the libretto by Kornel Hamvai almost completely erased the novella’s 18th century Latin American context. The opera can be heard in its entirety here.

7. THE LITTLE PRINCE

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s book about the adventures of a lost pilot and an other-worldly prince was adapted into an opera by Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright, and premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003. Then, in 2004, the BBC re-created the opera as a televised movie, which can be seen in full above.

8. 1984

Lorin Maazel’s opera of George Orwell’s dystopian novel premiered in 2005 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In the scene above, a crowd sings its hate for enemies of Oceania before a photo of Big Brother.

9. THE HANDMAID'S TALE

Based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, the opera adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was composed by Poul Ruders and premiered in 2000. Like 1984, the novel is set in a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian regime.

10. THE SECRET GARDEN

Composed by Nolan Gasser with a libretto by Carey Harrison, The Secret Garden premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2013. It tells the story of the orphaned Mary Lennox and the sickly Colin Craven as they stumble upon adventure and friendship.

11. MOBY-DICK

Using computer graphics and elaborate staging to tell its story, Jake Heggie’s adaptation of Moby-Dick was designed to make Melville’s famously dense novel more accessible to audiences. The opera premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2010, and followed the same overarching plot as the original novel, though it streamlined Melville's lengthy story and changed Ishmael’s name to Greenhorn.

12. DOLORES CLAIBORNE

Based on the 1992 thriller by Stephen King, composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchey’s Dolores Claiborne tells the tale of an elderly servant accused of the murder of her wealthy socialite employer in a small Maine town. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2013, Dolores Claiborne was the first opera adaptation of a Stephen King novel ever performed. However, there's at least one more Stephen King opera on the horizon: An adaptation of The Shining will be premiering at the Minnesota Opera this May.

13. SHALIMAR THE CLOWN

A story of romance, betrayal, and revenge, Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar The Clown seems like it’s practically begging to be made into an opera. A lyrical novel about a Kashmiri village of acrobats, actors, singers, and dancers, and the external forces that begin to threaten their way of life, the novel has both the heightened emotions and love of elaborate performance that characterize many great operas. It also addresses the ways new media like television and movies threaten traditional performance arts—an issue that has, of course, plagued opera in recent decades. Set to premiere this June at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Shalimar The Clown was composed by Jack Perla and written by Rajiv Joseph with Rushdie’s blessing. Perla's score blends European opera techniques with the tabla drums and sitar of Kashmir’s traditional music, and promises to be an interesting blend of two musical and performative traditions.

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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