The subjects have ranged from World War I, to the Red Threat, to the turmoil over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
In the past five years, the Minnesota Opera has become a leader in making new work for the American canon. On Saturday, the company opens "The Shining," an adaptation of Stephen King's novel and the fifth major launch since "The Grapes of Wrath," in 2007.
Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Moravec composed the score for "The Shining" and Mark Campbell wrote the libretto.
"Dale Johnson called me in '09 and asked, out of the blue, if I'd be interested in writing an opera for Minnesota," Moravec said. "I thought about it for a second and said yes, of course."
Moravec won the Pulitzer in 2004 for his chamber work "Tempest Fantasy." He had also composed "The Letter," an opera that had its debut with Santa Fe in 2009. Campbell, of course, has become familiar to Minnesota audiences for his libretti on "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Silent Night," both with scores by Kevin Puts — who himself won a Pulitzer for the latter work.
Johnson, the company's artistic director, and his crew tossed around ideas. "Rosemary's Baby" was mentioned but rights became an issue there. Finally, director Eric Simonson and Johnson suggested the King novel about a writer on the brink of insanity in an isolated Colorado resort hotel.
"King was great," Moravec said. "He wanted to see the outline and read the libretto but he authorized those right away and said, 'Go ahead.' "
King's quick approval was music to Campbell's ears.
"It made me very happy," he said of King's OK, within 24 hours of getting the opera's book. "I didn't want to have to go back and forth. I was very faithful to the spirit of the novel, which is about ending a cycle of child abuse in a family. That's something people don't know."
Moravec said "The Shining" has more of the pacing and the length of a Broadway musical. It's a thriller, he said, and it doesn't make sense to go on for three hours. The production will run just a tad longer than two hours, including intermission.
"Once all hell breaks loose in the second act, it rushes pretty quickly," he said.
Minnesota Opera staged three workshops for "The Shining," including one with full orchestra ("the only company that does that, as far as I know," Moravec said). It is spending nearly $2 million on this production, nearly double a typical show for the company. The four performances at the Ordway Center have sold out, which should comfort Johnson.
"Everything makes me nervous," he said, laughing. "You want to make sure that everything you do is the best you can do."
The new operas that Minnesota has birthed have enjoyed mixed success. "The rap is that you do it once and it disappears," Johnson said.
"Silent Night" has been a bona fide hit, thanks to the Pulitzer and the enduring nobility of the original story surrounding the World War I Christmas truces. Johnson said Fort Worth Opera will do "Manchurian Candidate" next season ("Kevin and Mark have been thinking of tinkering with the opening"). "Doubt," the John Patrick Shanley libretto, might play a couple of smaller companies. And Johnson said Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie are shaving down "The Grapes of Wrath," a massive work in its first incarnation.
On the horizon are adaptations of "Cold Mountain" and "Dinner at Eight" and something original on baseball's 1919 "Black Sox" scandal.
"The formula has been successful, but we'll stretch," Johnson said.