Death on the Mountain: ‘Everest’ comes to the Kauffman Center

The Lyric Opera’s November Production Offers a Searing Account of the 1996 Tragedy on Mount Everest

In the spring of 1996, “Outside” magazine sent writer Jon Krakauer to Mount Everest chasing a story: the commercialization of Everest. Since 1985, tourists with little or no climbing experience had been able to reach the summit thanks to company tours designed to allow any reasonably fit person to make the trek. In the years that followed, as many as 40 people per day reached the summit as a part of a paying group.

Krakauer’s thesis as he set out to climb the mountain in 1996: Why are tourists with more money than expertise being taken up Everest in the first place?

While on that assignment Krakauer was caught in a deadly blizzard that killed eight people. Five months later, “Outside” magazine published his eyewitness report of the disaster, which was followed in 1997 by his award-winning book “Into Thin Air.”

The 1996 Everest tragedy has been the subject of five other nonfiction books, one made-for-TV special, a documentary and a 2015 Hollywood movie.

Now, it’s been recast as an opera.

Those who’ve read Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” will be familiar with the plot, which follows commercial mountain guide Rob Hall, an accomplished New Zealand mountaineer, and his client Doug Hansen, as they make their way to the summit and then attempt to descend through the blizzard. The two climbers die, but not before Hall manages to make a final call to his pregnant wife, Jan. Meanwhile, Beck Weathers, also a client of Hall’s, survives the ordeal despite being left for dead twice.

“Everest,” with music by Joby Talbot and libretto by Gene Scheer, was commissioned by the Dallas Opera and had its premiere there in January 2015. “Everest” comes to the Kaufmann center in November, as a part of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s 2017-2018 season.

English composer Joby Talbot was tasked with bringing the aural world of Mount Everest to life. Talbot’s compositional history is diverse — among more conventional output, he’s written theme and score for the BBC comedy series “The League of Gentlemen,” the film score for the recent animated film “Sing” and two ballets for the Royal Ballet.

The story is not the mountain. The story is how humanity and the mountain come to terms with one another.

“Everest” is his first opera.

“I found the experience of writing an opera immensely fulfilling,” Talbot says.

The score of “Everest” has mostly been lauded as a success. In a 2015 review of the Dallas Opera production, “Opera News” wrote of a moment when the commercial guide, Rob Hall, reaches the summit. He sings about the beauty and “the cascading arpeggios and widely spaced chords accompanying his words convey the exhilaration of the moment and the crystalline splendor of the vista; dissonances creeping up from the bass suggest trouble ahead.”

“The music pits the brutal starkness of the opera’s setting — in the so-called ‘death zone’ at the very top of the world’s highest mountain — against the complicated humanity of the climbers,” Talbot says. “The singers tell of their characters’ innermost emotions and their reasons and motivations for pitting themselves against the inherent terrible dangers of high altitude climbing, and we move between emotionally-driven and lyrical passages of music and the brutal, stark and icy-cold ‘voice of the mountain,’ which is portrayed through the use of a large percussion section, braying brass chords and extended string techniques.”

The orchestral forces required for Talbot’s score are substantial, with triple winds, two pianos, a large string section and so much percussion that it almost cannot fit into a pit.

“Joby is very good at creating a unique sound world,” says conductor Nicole Paiement, who conducted the premiere at Dallas Opera and will also be on the podium in Kansas City. “There may be five percussionists in the pit, but it is not about volume. It is about colors and textures. We hear the ice cracking, the wind blowing, the thinning of air.”

These effects are achieved through the varied percussion, use of harmonics and glissando in the strings, and long unison pedal tones that slowly grow from consonance into dissonance.

The musical tableau Talbot created for the mountain could almost be a stand-alone tone poem. But the story is not the mountain. The story is how humanity and the mountain come to terms with one another.

“Writing large-scale story ballets, where I’d been asked to convey complex narratives without recourse to words, was the perfect preparation for writing an opera,” Talbot says. “I found it such a huge relief to finally have a text at my disposal, and Gene Scheer’s wonderful and brilliantly conceived libretto was a joy to work with.”

Gene Scheer’s resume is almost as diverse as Talbot’s is. He’s worked with composer Jake Heggie on operas, like “Moby-Dick” and “Three Decembers,” as well as the lyric drama “To Hell and Back,” which featured Patti LuPone. He collaborated with Jennifer Higdon on the operatic adaptation of “Cold Mountain” and was nominated for a Grammy award. He’s also a composer and has written songs for singers like Renée Fleming, Denyce Graves and Nathan Gunn. His song “American Anthem” is featured in the Ken Burns documentary “The War.”

As Scheer was writing the libretto for “Everest,” he researched George Mallory, the English climber who disappeared during the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition. He also reviewed the long history of people who’ve died on Everest, and interviewed survivors of the 1996 tragedy. They included Beck Weathers, who told him first-hand the story of being left for dead in the blizzard and walking to camp on his own.

“It’s a very dramatic story, and it’s a very poignant story,” Scheer said in a 2015 interview with “Outdoor” magazine. “That’s what I’m always looking for in an opera — the chance to watch people making decisions in real time that will affect those people and their families for the rest of their lives.”

Programming a new opera is a leap of faith. A premiere always garners attention but, in many cases, after the premiere, operas are lost to history. It’s the subsequent performances of an opera that tend to determine whether it enters the repertoire of major companies or not. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City has been involved in at least two second productions that helped propel the operas into the mainstream: Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1958. Kansas City gave the second performance of the piece five years later in 1963. Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men” was first performed at the Seattle Opera in January 1970 by the Seattle Opera. A few months later, the opera graced the stage in Kansas City. Both operas are now part of the established operatic repertoire.

The National Endowment for the Arts must also recognize the importance of that second performance. In June, Lyric Opera of Kansas City announced that it is the recipient of a $30,000 NEA Art Works award in support of their production of “Everest.” o

Lyric Opera Kansas City presents “Everest” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 15 and 17 and 2 p.m. Nov. 19. (Approximate running time of 75 minutes with no intermission.) For tickets, 816.471.7344 or kcopera.org

Photos courtesy of the Dallas Opera

About The Author: Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she’s not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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