Libretto by: Gary Winter
Completed excerpts: Act I, Scenes 1-3 (21′)
Carnival of Souls, a two-act opera based on the brilliant 1962 cult horror film, is the story of MARY HENRY, a church organist who has led her life removed from people and God, a soulless existence.
The film was originally directed and produced by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker from Lawrence, Kansas, where much of the film is shot. One thing that attracted us to the film was its middle-American appeal; that it was shot in a small town for a budget of $33,000.
Composer Jonathan Newman and playwright Gary Winter began their collaboration in 2007. At first Gary created one character for Mary Henry, and as the writing progressed he realized her development was more circular than linear. That is, Mary wavers from scene to scene from perfectly happy and flirtatious to a state of limbo, where she cannot hear anyone nor can anyone hear or see her. He wanted a way to illustrate her split personalities, and this prompted him to create three Marys: Mary A, B and C, who loosely replicate her moods and existential states at various points in the opera. Mary A is sung by a mezzo-soprano; Mary B by a higher soprano; and Mary C by a darker, more dramatic mezzo.
One of the great stories of Carnival of Souls is the story of the making of the film, which Gary wanted to incorporate into our opera. Thus our opera uses a framing device wherein HARVEY THE DIRECTOR and JC THE SCREENWRITER talk about their sources of inspiration, (i.e.-Harvey being inspired to make the film after he happened to drive by an abandoned pavilion along Utah’s Salt Lake), providing an “inside story” thread of narration. It’s also a great insight into the creative process.
Jonathan and Gary then examined the doubling of roles played into the narrative. For example, the character of HARVEY THE SOUL also plays Harvey the Director, a development coming directly from Herk Harvey playing the main soul (“The Man”) in the film.
Jonathan started by playing with a musical juxtaposition of the film’s campy elements with the more dramatically gritty and dark themes Gary brought out in the libretto. The result is a collection of similar themes and harmonies, but in a brew of styles from scene to scene.
The completed excerpts represent the first 21 minutes of the work, in three scenes. The brief orchestral prologue (not included in these excerpts) is frantic and motoric, with a dark harmonic language, but then Scene One’s music becomes languid and expressive, building in a kind of fractured-rock-style to the first appearance of the three Marys. Because we have Mary sung by three different voice parts, this made for the fun of writing counterpoint on a single text, for one character. The chorus at the end of the scene gets to perform the rock full out.
As Mary is an organist, we decided that in lieu of scoring for a church organ (the film itself is entirely scored with solo organ), the orchestra—along with Mary singing wordlessly—would be our organ. So in Scene Two in the organ factory, Jonathan composed a hymn of sorts, scattering parts of it throughout the scene, with characters singing with it, over it, and against it.
Scene Three is the first time we see our meta-characters of Harvey the Director and JC the Screenwriter, so the style changes to a lighter back and forth between the two, building to a humorous blues-duet where the two list off their real-world woes as industrial filmmakers. But then Harvey gets dreamy as he tells his tale of seeing the old pavilion on the edge of Salt Lake, so his aria is built on a rhythmically-driven ostinato. As Harvey returns to reality and gets excited about his idea, JC and Harvey’s blues music returns with gusto.
Our main goal is to tell an engaging and original story. What is so unique about Carnival of Souls is that it is a complex character study embodied in a low-budget horror film. It is Mary Henry’s contradictory and elusive personality, her struggle to be disengaged from humanity versus natural human desire that make her such a compelling character for this opera.
Carnival of Souls story and characters used by permission of Peter Soby, Jr. and Matthew Irvine.
This work is in manuscript.