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Life and Death in the Mountains

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny previews the upcoming season, and discusses challenges of pairing two short operas on one bill.

published Sunday, August 3, 2014


Dallas —  As I have described in previous editions of Off the Cuff, I believe that regular commissions and presentations of new operas are an essential part of the strategy of any successful American opera company in the 21st century. A mere 10 to 15 years ago, relatively few opera companies commissioned operas on a regular basis. Now, even smaller companies with budgets under $1 million a year are routinely commissioning and presenting new work. As critic and writer Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times was quoted as saying in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “American—and new American—opera has become commonplace all over the land.” 

Over the last several years, The Dallas Opera has expanded its programming strategy to include “neglected gems” of the repertoire, as well as 20th- and 21st-century operas, commissions and “evergreen classics.” (Some of these repertoire distinctions, and their role in audience development were described in this previous Off the Cuff.) In the upcoming season, TDO will present two “evergreen classics” (Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Puccini’s La bohème), an important 20th-century work (Richard Strauss’s Salome), a “neglected gem” (Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta) and a world premiere (Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest). Preparations are already well underway for Everest, which will premiere on January 30, 2015. The Everest world premiere will be paired with Act IV of Catalani’s beautiful, but rarely performed opera, La Wally, set in the Tyrolean Alps (more about that later). This overall mix of operas fits our current strategy very closely, in that the upcoming season presents an intriguing balance of better- and lesser-known works, sung languages (Italian, German, Russian and English), date of composition, and compositional style. We are especially proud that the 2014-2015 Season will include two completely new productions: the Everest/La Wally double bill and Iolanta.

In a world where composers are often described as “versatile,” British composer Joby Talbot truly earns the label. In his distinguished career, he has composed TV and film music, major ballets, popular songs, choral and orchestral compositions, as well as electronic music. I had the great privilege of attending the world premiere of his full-length ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at London’s Covent Garden in 2011, and was entranced by the beautiful music, elaborate and creative production, and exquisite dance. As we evaluated candidates for future commissions several years ago, I knew that Joby was someone that I definitely wanted to engage for the Dallas Opera.

Photo: Karen Almond
LaTonia Moore, who played Aida at the Dallas Opera in 2012, will star in La Wally

We were incredibly fortunate to be able to secure time in Joby’s busy calendar, and I encouraged him to consider working with veteran opera librettist Gene Scheer (whose most recent major project in Dallas was the remarkable collaboration with Jake Heggie that produced Moby-Dick). Gene felt that the 1996 Mount Everest disaster might make an excellent subject for an opera, given its elements of heroism and tragedy, and we all quickly agreed; Everest still continues to capture headlines with its unshakeable-and- sometimes-fatal attraction for climbers, both professional and amateur, and the attendant risks for climbers, Sherpas, and loved ones.

As many readers know, the 1996 climbing season on Everest was particularly tragic. Fifteen climbers lost their lives, including eight in a single day. Rather than relying on any published sources, Gene conducted 40 hours of in-depth personal interviews with mountain climbers—some famous professionals, some amateurs; some who were on the slopes of Everest on that tragic day in 1996, and still others who had climbed the mountain at other times. From his meticulous research, Gene has shaped a remarkable libretto, inspired by true events, that expertly melds the real and the imagined, and incorporates four primary characters: Dallas-based climber Dr. Beck Weathers, guide Rob Hall, repeat client Doug Hansen, and Rob’s pregnant wife, Jan Arnold, who spoke by satellite phone with Rob when they both knew there was no hope for his survival. The work will also include a chamber chorus, whose role I will leave a secret for now.

The Dallas Opera has assembled an outstanding creative and artistic team to work with Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer. Leonard Foglia will direct; Robert Brill, David C. Woolard and Christopher Akerlind are designing the production (sets, costumes and lighting); and Elaine J. McCarthy will create video material for the world premiere. The four solo roles will be sung by Andrew Bidlack, Sasha Cooke, Kevin Burdette, and Craig Verm, and the production will also feature a chorus of 16 and The Dallas Opera Orchestra. TDO’s newly appointed Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement, will conduct. The orchestration will include elaborate percussion, unique sound effects, and some unusual instruments. Unlike TDO’s production last season of Tod Machover’s sci-fi opera Death and the Powers, the singers and orchestra will not be amplified, but you can expect to be immersed in a subtle and memorable soundscape, as well as some great singing.

Everest will run just over an hour, too short to serve as an entire evening of opera. This presented me with the enjoyable challenge of finding a work to pair with the piece. Operatic double bills are relatively rare (Pagliacci’s pairing with Cavalleria rusticana being one notable exception; Santa Fe Opera this summer is presenting a double bill of Mozart’s The Impressario with Stravinsky’s Le Rossingnol), so there are relatively few precedents. I was looking for an opera that addressed themes of danger in the mountains, of love and death, with strong characters facing impossible challenges. With these themes in mind, and having explored a range of options, I felt that Catalani’s La Wally would be an excellent choice.

Catalani was an Italian opera composer, who lived, all too briefly, between 1854 and 1893. His musical style incorporates elements of Puccini, but also anticipates later musical developments. The story of La Wally is based on a novel by Wilhelmine von Hillern (1836-1916) with the long-winded title “Die Geyer-Wally, Eine Geschichte aus den Tyroler Alpen.” The title character, La Wally, (actually the Vulture Wally) is a 19th century “child of nature,” who defies the gender conventions of her time through her independence and take-charge style. The libretto is by Luigi Illica, who collaborated so notably with Puccini to create La bohèmeTosca, and Madama Butterfly. The famous conductor Arturo Toscanini was a great champion of this work, calling Catalani “a most simpatico spirit.” In fact, he named his son Walter (yes, there is a Walter in La Wally), and one of his daughters after La Wally herself. Although he had subsequent children, presumably, the noted conductor or his wife drew the line at the idea of a “Hagenbach Toscanini.”

In addition to the beautiful music of La Wally—which I find reminiscent of Puccini, although with sparser orchestral textures—I was drawn to the dramatic themes of the opera. Wally is a passionate, strong and athletic female character in an era when those types of roles were far less common (although the role is somewhat similar to Minnie in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, or The Girl of the Golden West). In Act I, La Wally rebels against her father’s dictate to marry Gellner, a man she despises. Defiantly, she tells the patriarch that she will leave him and their village forever (leading to the most famous aria of the work “Ebben? Ne andrò lontata,” also featured in the 1981 French cult film Diva). In Act II, her father has died, and, in a fit of jealous anger, Wally persuades Gellner to kill the man she really loves (Diva tantrums aside), Hagenbach. By Act III, she has calmed down and is horrified to learn that Gellner has, per her earlier request, pushed her true love Hagenbach into a mountain ravine. She climbs down into the dangerous crevasse to personally rescue Hagenbach. In Act IV, she is—understandably—lonely and depressed. In the distance, she hears the voice of Hagenbach calling to her. Unfortunately, his voice triggers an avalanche, which kills him. Wally then throws herself into a ravine, overcome by remorse and despair. Who would expect anything less from the heroine of a nineteenth-century Italian opera?  

Despite the beautiful music, La Wally is rarely performed, at least in part, because of the difficulty of staging an avalanche and “suicide by ravine.” (For a full inventory of the most memorable means of theatrical demise, please review this Off The Cuff, which includes—what else!—murder by violets.) It was an important work in its time, however, and the premiere took place in 1892 in no less an opera house than La Scala. Never being one to shy away from a challenge, TDO will be presenting Act IV, which contains the dramatic climax of the work, including the deaths of the two leading characters. We are working intensively with our talented directing and design team, including Candace Evans and Robert Brill, to bring this extended excerpt to life. This part of the double-bill will star Latonia Moore in the title role and Carl Tanner as Hagenbach. Anthony Barrese will conduct.

From my personal point of view, Everest and La Wally make an ideal pairing. Both contain strong and memorable characters (male and female), perils from the elements, dramatic rises and falls, and—quite literally—life and death on the mountain. While the geography and time periods differ (19th-century Switzerland versus 20th-century Nepal), there are enough themes and elements in common to make such a pairing as logical as it is thrilling. In any case, this operatic double bill, which represents the “pinnacle” of TDO’s “Heights of Passion” Season, promises to be a memorable one. So grab your pitons and your ice axe, and rappel down to the Winspear Opera House.

Subscriptions and single tickets are on sale now!

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Life and Death in the Mountains
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny previews the upcoming season, and discusses challenges of pairing two short operas on one bill.
by Keith Cerny

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