Dallas — Baritone Craig Verm is a mountain climber in real life and plays one in the Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Everest. The opera is a mega-hit and part of that success is that the creative set allows for real mountain climbing on the stage. The combination of the cube-dominated set and the reality of lowering yourself on rope with one if the innovative parts of the opera.
He made his local debut in the Fort Worth Opera’s 2008 production of Angels in America and sings other roles in contemporary operas. Upcoming is a run of operas by Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd, Albert Herring and Peter Grimes. All three roles are notoriously difficult to sing—musical mountains to summit as it were.
“My climbing and backpacking started in college. I spent my summers in the wilderness. In Colorado, I was a guide for climbing expeditions,” Verm says. “In fact, I am wearing my own parka in this production. It is full of memories for me. It even has my mom’s handwriting on it.”
On playing Doug Hansen, one the victims of the 1996 Everest tragedy that this opera is about, Verm finds empathy.
“Doug Hansen was a postal worker. He climbed Everest, coming frustratingly close to the summit with Rob [Hall, the guide portrayed in the opera],” Verm says. “In this climb from 1996, the one in the opera, he was determined to get to the summit. We don’t really know what went on, but this opera has Doug getting to the top, with a superhuman effort by Ron to get him there. But they were there too late in the day and didn’t have enough strength to return.”
“No one can control mother nature, so we prepare for the worst and then try to mitigate risk on the actual climb,” he says.
Why do mountain climbers take on dangerous adventures, fully knowing the risks?
His mother asked him the same question, he says, and he answered her in an email. When I asked to see it, he generously offered to allow TheaterJones to reprint it is full. It is relatively long, but definitely worth reading. Especially in light of the character he portrays in Everest.
It is fairly long, but this one quote seemed to sum it all up: “I guess at the core of it, the beauty of it all is that the entire experience unlocks so beautifully and experience that is 100 percent physical, 100 percent emotional, and 100 percent spiritual.”
Here is the letter in full:
I watched a fascinating documentary last night about the Eiger [in the Swiss Alps]. The journalist in the ’60s asked a climber why in the world he would want to climb a more difficult line of the Eiger, when he had already conquered the Northface previously. He didn't understand why he would want to risk his life. This of course is the question that anyone always asks about mountain climbing, especially if they have limited experience with it. The climber’s answer didn't satisfy the journalist, but I thought it was worth sharing with you. He said that with any endeavor, you judge and mitigate the risk as best as you can. And his judgment, his desire to do a new route up the Eiger coupled with intense planning made it justifiable.
I think it was Mallory in 1924 that could [have] simply answered "because it is there" when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest.
Beck Weathers talked frankly in the documentary, and it is also talked about in the opera, that he found a certain kind of bliss when he would push himself physically, and it helped him get outside of his deep depression.
For me, I look at my times high in the mountains, whether on my own on the trail, long days climbing mountains in the Rockies, or especially my epic day with Alan climbing the mixed ice and rock route up Longs, as some of my most enlightened and "alive "moments I have ever had in life. It's a combination of the beauty, the accomplishment, the adrenaline, discovering how far you can push yourself, and communing with God. All of that put together creates an intense sense of being truly alive in a given moment of time that becomes forever etched in memory and forever priceless.
This is also one of the reasons I loved guiding so much. Getting to share this awakening, or enlightenment, or "aliveness" with clients was thrilling. Helping people conquer their own fears, and helping them see what they could accomplish with their body and with their willpower was a true privilege.
I guess at the core of it, the beauty of it all is that the entire experience unlocks so beautifully and experience that is 100 percent physical, 100 percent emotional, and 100 percent spiritual.
There may be some whose desire to experience this bliss drives them so much that they are willing to take on a higher amount of risk to experience it. Some take on too much risk without enough planning, and they put themselves in a huge amount of danger. The Eiger documentary on YouTube is called Eiger: Wall of Death. It ends with a remarkable climber [who] was filmed climbing the Eiger in a record less-than-three-hour time. He prepared for that one moment in his life for over a year. But of course he didn't start out just from scratch, he's probably been climbing since he was very young. And working his way up.
One of the big dangers with Everest, and this has been debated over and over again, is that so many people are climbing a mountain that are not experienced enough to be there. And then the ones that are experienced.
All suggestions are welcome. Don’t be shy (ha, ha).
» Everest has one more performance, on Feb. 7, and is paired with Act IV of Catalani's La Wally. Here's our review.
» Here is that documentary about the Eiger: