Celebrated British composer Joby Talbot has written for film, television and ballet. Now, at 43, he’s composed his first opera that gets its world premiere by the Dallas Opera tonight. Everest tells a tale pulled together from survivor stories, including that of North Texan Dr. Beck Weathers.
This opera was Gene Scheer’s idea. The librettist successfully worked on the Dallas Opera’s Moby Dick premiere five years ago. For years, he had been captivated by the 1996 Everest expedition when eight climbers died.
“It seems to be about both really big sort of existential themes coupled with these challenging circumstances these characters found themselves in,” Scheer says. “You’re dealing with both the big and the small.”Scheer sold Joby Talbot on Everest, especially, says the composer, on creating a sound world around the peak.
“There’s like the voice of the mountain that’s one of the first thoughts I had,” Talbot says. “Gene was talking about including a chorus. I thought, well, it’s not just the chorus representing the voice of the mountain, it’s going to be the music doing that too. I was looking for the sound to represent this fickle, terrifying entity. So I was looking for rock cracking under the pressure, and the cold, wind perpetually whistling past.”
Baritone Craig Verm was immediately thrilled by what he heard. He also admired Talbot’s vocal writing skill.
“Joby has brilliantly incorporated lots of breaths,” says Verm. “So we can move with our body and gasp for air in between words and between phrases to give the illusion that we really are suffering from hypoxia.”
Verm’s character [Doug Hansen] is one of the doomed climbers. Aided by a guide, he sings of his desire to reach the summit.
“I say over and over, ‘Let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it,’ where each word has its own note and they’re very short and punctuated.”
Scheer and Talbot focused on just a few personal stories from the tragic expedition, including that of Dr. Beck Weathers. He was near the summit when his eyesight failed. Weathers remembers guide Rob Hall’s parting advice as he left to help others.
“‘And I want you to promise me that you’re going to stay here till I come back.’ I said, ‘Cross my heart, hope to die, I’m sticking.’ It never occurred to me he would never come back.”
That’s when a blizzard blew in. Two groups of climbers left an unconscious Weathers for dead, an accepted Everest practice. But he awoke from a coma 15 hours later and frostbitten, stumbled into camp. Hall, the guide, died on the mountain.
One question this opera poses: why risk death at 29,000 feet?
For Weathers, climbing released him rom suicidal depression. Verm is also a climber. He’s trekked the same Colorado mountains Weathers first climbed. He has a slightly different attraction.
“I think what draws me to performing,” Verm says,”is the same things that draw me to the mountains. There is an aliveness a mixture of being 100% physical, 100% emotional, 100% spiritual experience. And you’re exhausted, but you’ve never been more alive.”
That’s what the creators and the Dallas Opera hope the audience feels, with Everest.
The Dallas Opera’s Everest runs through Feb. 7 at Winspear Opera House.