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April 9, 2020

Small Moments of Life in the Face of “Everest”

Austin Opera scales the musical and dramatic peaks of the sleek, tension-filled "Everest"

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“One does not need to see a forest on fire for great theatrical stakes to be established,” says librettist Gene Sheer.

“Watching someone light a match can be all that is needed.”

Austin Opera presents the opera “Everest” from Gene Scheer and composer Joby Talbot. The 75-minute, one act work tells a grave and delirious story inspired by the real-life experiences of climbers Rob Hall, Doug Hansen, and Beck Weathers on their 1996 expedition of Mount Everest — one of the deadliest seasons in the mountain’s history.

The Austin production comes from the Dallas Opera, the organization that commissioned “Everest” which premiered in 2015. The cast features three of the stars of the original Dallas Opera: bass-baritone Kevin Burdette as Texas native Beck Weathers, tenor Andrew Bidlack as New Zealand mountaineer and expedition leader Rob Hall, and baritone Craig Verm as doomed climber Doug Hansen.

In “Everest,” the decisions that the characters of Rob, Doug, and Beck make on their increasingly dire journey are at the center of the drama, with the elemental and personic musical depiction of Mount Everest juxtaposed against the brittleness of the human characters.

This dynamic is what drew the New York-based Sheer to the setting of the story that is about, he says, “the small choices that people make that have huge consequences.”

“The trajectory of one’s life can be changed by saying ‘hello’ to someone, or by deciding to leave the summit at 4 p.m. rather than 4:05 p.m. It is the combination of the fragility of human beings making intimate choices that cascade in many different ways that I find so interesting.”

The project of making the began to take form when the Dallas Opera flew Scheer to Toronto for the opening of Talbot’s 2011 ballet “Alice in Wonderland,” believing that the two would hit it off. They were right.

“It was so inspiring talking with him about opera,” says the London-baed Talbot via email. “Also (it was) very impressive, and not a little unusual, that Dallas Opera would be so proactive about getting us together. I guess that’s the go-getting Texan way for you!”

Scheer recalls in his meeting with Talbot that “it was clear that in addition to being a wonderful composer, Joby was theatrically gifted,” he says. “Writing a libretto is not dissimilar to writing a silent film script. In that case, there are big gestures that invite a gifted cinematographer to illuminate the subtleties and heart of the story.”

Andrew Bidlack as New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall who died in 1996 guiding climbers Doug Hansen and Beck Weathers to the summit of Mount Everest. Photo: Karen Almond for The Dallas Opera

For Talbot, the appeal of the “Everest” project was the wide emotional dynamics that the story could encapsulate, which in his opinion, is critical to the creative process.

“I think the first and most important question anyone writing an opera needs to ask is ‘why are the characters singing?’ The extreme nature of this story seemed to answer the question for me,” he says.

“It goes beyond things that can be simply expressed through words.”

To understand what form the opera would take, Sheer spent months contacting and interviewing survivors, some for hours at a time. And while retellings of the 1996 disaster have been expressed numerous times in other mediums (including Jon Krakauer’s best-selling nonfiction account, “Into Thin Air”), Scheer discovered during the course of his interviews that the story of the event was particularly well suited to the opera genre. 

“Opera excels at illuminating large emotional moments of conflict. What I am interested in is telling stories in which music can be exploited to depict how people change based on their experiences and the choices that they make,” Scheer explains.

In the opera’s composition, Talbot explored the thematic mechanics of the changes the characters undergo, applying real life conditions to musical expression.

“I read up about altitude sickness as I was keen to try to depict musically the insidious way in which conditions gradually disable climbers both physically and mentally if they spend too long at extreme altitude,” Talbot says. 

“The dividing line between real life and characters’ subconscious in constantly blurred in this weird and terrifying liminal ‘death zone’ at the top of Mount Everest.” 

The structure of the opera also utilizes the dizzying phenomena of near-death experience to tell a branching story, as both the climbers and audience witness hallucinations and flashing memories that illustrate the emotions and motivations of the characters. All the while, Mount Everest expresses its own, seemingly personified will, as the recurring howl of the thunderous score counterpoints the beats of intimate operatic vocals expressed by the climbers.

The opera’s chorus is the most direct musical metaphor in the plot, giving a voice not to the mountain, but to those that have perished while climbing it.

“From the beginning I thought of Everest as a graveyard,” says Scheer. “But unlike other cemeteries, the bones of those who perished are scattered on top of the surface as one climbs the mountain.”

Andrew Bidlack and Craig Verm in Dallas Opera's production of Everest.
Andrew Bidlack and Craig Verm in “Everest.” Photo: Karen Almond for The Dallas Opera

The intertwined fates of past-climbers who have died and those who might soon meet the same end are musically parallel as Talbot’s score progresses, culminating in the macabre addition chorus members as the story reaches its end.

However, “Everest” is as much as story about life as it is about death. Audiences will witness that in times of peril, fear, and tragedy — somehow and some way — there are moments of ethereal clarity.

“At one point I asked Beck Weathers to describe his job as a pathologist. When he explained that everything he looks at is artificial, that is it is unseeable until dyes and acids are added to the cells, a central metaphor for the piece emerged,” he says.

“Beck can not see his true life — it’s value and meaning — until Everest allows him to do so.”

Austin Opera performs “Everest” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 & 25, 2:30 p.m. Jan. 26. austinopera.org/event/everest/

Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa is a musicologist and arts writer from Santa Barbara, California. Now based in Austin, he splits his time between going out to eat too much and arguing about video games.

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