Dallas — The Dallas Opera is at the top of the world these days. Running in the black and producing stunningly original productions, Dallas is making operatic history with three world premieres in 2015—quite a feat for any opera company.
The first is Everest, which opens this weekend at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House on a rare double bill, paired with the dramatic final dénouement of a rarely performed Italian romantic opera, La Wally by Alfredo Catalani. (The others are Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, both happening in the final months of 2015.)
Everest is the first opera by British composer Joby Talbot, who is best known for his adventurous ballet and film scores—he has composed several ballets for acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The heavy-hitting opera experience falls to his librettist Gene Scheer, who wrote the book for TDO’s last big hit premiere, Heggie’s Moby-Dick.
Everest is set near the summit of Mt. Everest and based on the story of a May 1996 disaster in which eight climbers died of exposure and several others were stranded by a sudden killer storm. There have been books and even a movie made about these tragic events, some written by climbers that were actually on the scene.
But those are not the basis for Scheer’s libretto.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to base this opera on any of the pre-existing accounts,” Scheer said at a recent roundtable discussion, “but would travel around and personally visit with those participants still alive and some friends and family of those who did not return.”
Scheer pares the story down to the critical relationship between Rob Hall (played by tenor Andrew Bidlack), the most famous of the mountain climbing guides on the summit that day, and two of a group of climbers who hired him to get them to the top of Everest: Dallas pathologist Beck Weathers (bass Kevin Burdette) and a postal worker, Doug Hansen (baritone Craig Verm).
As they neared the summit a severe storm blew in, bringing disaster with it. Weathers survived by falling into a frozen coma, buried for many hours in the snow. When he regained partial consciousness, he forced himself to his frostbitten feet and miraculously staggered back to the camp. Somehow, he found help in spite of temporary blindness, being completely lost and hallucinating.
The odds are inestimable for that astonishing act of self-preservation. It is said that within the hellish last stretch of the grueling climb, one physically spent and teeth-gritting step every 10-15 minutes is average.
Hansen was returning to Everest after coming within 300 feet of the summit on a previous attempt. Rob Hall encouraged him to join this expedition and finally reach his goal of “summiting.” He was close to that triumph when they reached the witching time of 2 p.m.—after that the odds of getting back down safely diminish with every second. He was not about to fail again, and Hansen forced his exhausted body to go on—no matter the cost.
When Hansen inevitably got into trouble, Hall, who was just as spent, tried to rescue him. He managed to get the unconscious Hansen part of the way back to the camp, but it was a futile effort. To this day, they lie, frozen, on Everest’s unforgiving slope.
“It was their [previous] relationship that sealed their fate,” says director Leonard Foglia. “That time, Rob turned Doug back with just a few hundred feet to go. So, Doug was determined to get to the top and Rob was determined to get him there.”
Before going back for Hansen, the base camp was able to patch Hall through over the radio system to his pregnant wife Jan (mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke).
“Talbot lavished beautiful and wistful music on this final duet,” said Scheer at another seminar. “They both know that final heartbreaking conversation will be the last. It gets to me every time I hear it.”
There is one more character in the opera: The mountain itself.
“The music paints a picture of Everest in all its awe-inspiring majesty and its dispassionate cruelty,” says conductor Nicole Paiement, who last year was named the Dallas Opera’s Principal Guest Conductor. “The storm’s music is as overwhelming as the actual event itself must have been. It is ‘cinematic’ in that the music in the orchestral pit and the action on the stage are integrally entwined.”
The cast members say that the music explains, elucidates, underlines and even exaggerates both the intrinsic drama of a raging storm on the outside and the battle for survival on the inside; humans pushed way beyond their limits.
Foglia has already shown us his ability to stage a large-scale drama that hinges on private interactions when he directed Moby-Dick to international acclaim. New operas are his specialty.
“I came into the project about a year and a half ago,” Foglia says. “The libretto was still in outline stage. It was about halfway there. “My input was the same as with Moby-Dick. I see my position in early stages as a first responder—asking questions about why certain things are done. I ask a lot of questions more than give solutions.”
The set, designed by Robert Brill, is representative rather than reality-driven. It fills every square foot of the stage with boxes creating many different levels that allow for real climbing (several climbing supernumeraries were brought on) to heighten the sense of place. The surfaces on the cubist set also serve as a screen for projections by Elaine J. McCarthy (whose projection work was impressive in Moby-Dick) that add realism—both existent and illusory—to the experience.
Craig Verm, who plays Doug Hansen, is a climber in real life. “There is a place where I lower myself down, just as I would on a climb,” he says. “I even get to wear my own parka.”
Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level, making it the highest peak on earth.
“Everest is not a hard mountain to climb in itself,” Weathers said at a recent talk at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. “What makes it extraordinarily difficult is that it is so high. The oxygen level is thin and altitude sickness is a real danger.”
The use of supplemental oxygen is common, but controversial. Its use was standard from the 1920s until 1978, when the summit was reached without it. The expedition portrayed in the opera used it. The top guides claim that bottled oxygen use allows less experienced climbers to try to make it to the summit. This was, in point of fact, exactly what happened in the present situation.
Doug Hansen was barely qualified to climb Everest and, to make matters worse, was reportedly not in adequate physical shape. But the critical decision to go forward, past the 2 p.m. failsafe deadline, sealed the fate of Hansen and others.
“Nature is unforgiving, and it’s powerful, and these men trying to test nature is a story of hubris,” Foglia told the Star-Telegram. “…That’s what I’m drawn to—why is there this desire to put yourself so close to death? It’s about endurance to a certain degree but you’re also putting yourself at great risk.”
THE OTHER OPERA
The Dallas Opera’s operatic evening starts out nearly 4,000 miles from Mt. Everest and over a century apart. Everest is set near the beginning of the 21st century in the Himalayas, and La Wally takes place at the turn of the 19th century in the Austrian Alps.
La Wally (short for Wallburga) is, like Everest, also about a human pushed beyond her boundaries—but this time there are emotional limits that are exceeded. Act IV of the opera, which is relatively self-contained, will be presented before Everest (the new opera runs about 70 minutes).
The lush musical score is by Alfredo Catalani on a libretto by Puccini collaborator Luigi Illica. Here is a quick wrap-up of the first three acts:
High up in the Tyrolean Alps, La Wally, the daughter of a wealthy villager, is the target of many suitors. Her father forces her to marry a man other than the one she loves. It is an old story, but one that is just as disastrous—although perhaps more within the range of our experience—than being trapped or left for dead on Everest.
In a moment of anger, she asks one of her suitors to push her true love, Hagenbach, off a cliff—a task he obligingly performs. The suddenly repentant Wally rushes up the mountains to try to save her beloved. She lowers herself into the ravine on a rope and carryies him up the steep walls to safety. No fragile flower she!
When we pick up the story in the last act, La Wally, alone and inconsolable, has retreated far up into the mountains to escape everything. Hagenbach finds her and passionately declares his love for her. They are reconciled and start back down the mountain to the village. But alas, that moment of happiness is too much for fickle finger of operatic fate and an Everest-like catastrophe occurs. Hagenbach is swept away by an avalanche and the devastated La Wally throws herself, Tosca-like, off the precipice to join him in frozen death.
The most memorable aria from the opera is the meltingly beautiful “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“All right then, I'll go far away”). It occurs in the first act, but is interpolated into the beginning of this production of Act IV for several reasons. First and foremost, it is much loved and frequently performed, and therefore its absence would be disappointing indeed.
Using it here, it sets up the situation by explaining who she is and why she is traversing the Alps.
“The aria was written before the opera—and the composer added it in,” says TDO General Director and CEO Keith Cerny. “Since it was tacked on anyway, it is reasonable to move it around for effect.”
This aria will be familiar from Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 movie Diva, where it is memorably sung by the American soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez.
As to the cast of La Wally, which is conducted by Anthony Barrese and staged by director Candace Evans, has two casts in the roles: Sopranos Mary Elizabeth Williams (Jan. 30, Feb. 1 and 4) and Melissa Citro (Feb. 7) alternate as La Wally. Tenors Rodrigo Garciarroyo (Jan. 30, Feb. 1 and 4) and Arnold Rawls (Feb. 7) portray Hagenbach.
It’s a spot-on pairing, delivering something for everyone—a new opera for the adventurous and a revival of a late 19th century ill-fated romance for the traditionalists. But they do share more than a mountain and death.
“What the two pieces have in common is that they’re set on mountains,” Talbot said in the Star-Telegram, “and they’re dealing with people in extreme conditions. I think it’ll be exciting to see the similarities of these operas from composers more than a century apart.”