In Praise Of Shapera's The King In Yellow
Paul Shapera is (probably) the most prolific opera composer of the 21st century.
He’s also the one my operatic peers are least likely to have heard of compared to other composers with a similar volume of work.
This is a blog about why that is, horror opera, and why his The King In Yellow is an example of vital, living adaptation.
Paul Shapera is (almost certainly) the internet’s favourite opera composer. Starting with The Dolls of New Albion, a genre-mixing steampunk opera, he has written a slew of works - largely within his New Albion universe, but many outside it.
His works draw anarchically from a range of forms, subcultures, and genres, sprawling across hundreds of hours of works that are very difficult to describe as not-opera, except for two points:
1. The genre they draw least from is contemporary opera. They have tunes, and pretty strict tonality. If they have an operatic lineage musically, it is the light opera tradition via Puccini that split off into musical theatre after 1945. To me, that’s not a problem - we’d celebrate a composer deviating from the canon in the opposite direction of abstraction and conceptualism. And Shapera’s music is still clever in many ways, while remaining tonal and - above all - entertaining, with roots in popular musics, pulp genres, and various other soils.
2. They have, almost invariably, not been performed onstage (please someone let me direct The Ballad of Lost Hollow). Other than a few student productions of The Dolls of New Albion, the century’s most productive opera composer has, in some ways appropriately, poured out works onto the internet for mass consumption. While I’d beg major houses to put some on, and discover the idea of commissioning work that might make money from sales, I doubt I’ll see that any time soon.
The King In Yellow is an iconic collection of short stories - the starting four in a world where a strange play binds those who’ve read it, compels them to finish, and contains truths they cannot deny as the King’s influence grows cancerously across the world. It is the first use of this trope, and chilling to read. I’d recommend it [it is ironically difficult to find a print copy in a physical store]. The latter six stories are more akin to Scenes de la vie Boheme, and disappointingly not-horror.
Horror opera onstage is hard for the reason all horror onstage is hard - to be onstage is to reveal, and to to reveal is often to make not-scary. The King In Yellow hints, alludes, and winds its way towards not revealing what the truth of lost Carcosa is.
I have seen a few horror opera attempts - often the music goes some way towards being unsettling, but does not quite overcome the strangeness of expository singing about the singer’s situation and thoughts. The opera-ness overrides the genre-ness. If you’re scared, and want me to be scared, I want to see you run. I want to want to run and scream, not sit in Wagnerian silence.
Which leads us to why Shapera’s adaptation is an example of vital adaptation and transposition. Vital in both senses of ‘living’ and ‘timely’.
I’ve seen a lot of operatic adaptations of early 20th century (Just out of copyright! Woohoo!) works. Many fall flat, separated from the context that made them feel alive. Others claim a relevance to our world due to a claimed parallel, while staying in the original time period, or only shifting to ours in costuming.
Shapera’s The King In Yellow throws that out the window. True, it’s not really an opera, more of an oratorio/song cycle. But in a way, a more heightened/abstract through-sung form is fitting for an adaptation of a book about a play that, in the snippets we see, is a masterpiece of fin-de-siecle symbolist writing.
It’s also not really an adaptation of The King In Yellow, in that it shares none of the same characters except the titular, non-appearing king. Nor is it a mere modernisation, transplanting the action to a different era and making appropriate tweaks as in a jeans production.
What it is is a revitalisation and reimagining of a core idea of the original: a poisonous idea that seeds, takes root, and spreads. Shapera’s work has often had an underlying cyberpunk-anarchist heart to it, but The King In Yellow is much more direct. The idea is the web of conspiracies, mistrust, and bigotry that have polluted American politics.
This shouldn’t work for me. I normally am bored by or actively dislike works that try to ‘address current issues’ like this. But I love this album-oratorio.
It’s willing to make bold changes to the original work, zooming into what makes the original work - being really fucking horrifying and creepy in the sense of an idea that you cannot stop. That’s reinforced through both unsettling music and—
It’s willing to be brazen in how it ties to our world. It’s got a solid sense of where it stands, rather than floating platitudes. Throughout, there are actual quotes from various interviews, bits of The King In Yellow’s awful call. It’s talking about now, integrating ‘found material’, but doing so in a context that both adds to the work and to the originals, because—
It’s got an aching sympathy in places for those monsters who have been taken. Yes, Alex Jones is roundly mocked, but the paranoid and frightened people who have been duped are shown… not solely as victims, but not solely as monsters either. And that double-facedness is there in the book, but truly brought out here as Shapera’s King wanders through our world. These are people who are lost, and not coming back. By adapting horror in this way, it highlights the horror in the world, and revitalises the horror in the original.
Throughout, it’s tight and it cares. Every second advances the drama, and the central exploration of how the poison spread through the world.
Not, importantly, how to stop it. The King cannot necessarily be stopped.
And that, ultimately, is where the horror lies. That’s how the original story, from a pre-WWI world of censorship and discovery, is revitalised.
The King scares us because he’s here.