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Everest is a one-act opera by Joby Talbot to an English-language libretto by Gene Scheer. It was composed in 2014 and premiered on January 30, 2015, at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House of Dallas Opera. The content deals with the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.
|Opera by Joby Talbot|
Summit of Mount Everest from southwest
Everest was commissioned by Dallas Opera. Talbot composed it in 2014. The libretto by Gene Scheer deals with a real event, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, in which several mountaineers died after a change in the weather. It is based on interviews with survivors and shows in two strands the slow death of Rob Hall and Doug Hansen as well as the emotional world of Beck Weathers, which – already weakened – had been left behind and could be saved by severe frostbite.
At the world premiere on 30 January 2015 at Margot & Bill Winspear Opera House in Dallas Sasha Cooke (Jan Arnold), Julia Rose Arduino (Meg Weathers), Andrew Bidlack (Rob Hall), Craig Verm (Doug Hansen), Kevin Burdette (Beck Weathers), John Boehr (Guy Cotter) and Mark McCrory (Mike Groom) sang. The musical direction was by Nicole Paiement. The production was directed by Leonard Foglia, the set design by Robert Brill (Betty Award), costume design by David C. Woolard and projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy (Betty Award)
On 5 May 2017, on the occasion of the Opera America Conference 2017, there was a concert performance at the Winspear Opera House under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume. In November 2017 the original staging of the opera was performed by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and again in 2019 at Calgary Opera.
The European premiere took place on 5 May 2018 at the Theater Hagen in a production by Johannes Erath under the baton of Joseph Trafton. Stage and costumes came from Kaspar Glarner. The leading roles were sung by Veronika Haller (Jan Arnold), Musa Nkuna (Rob Hall), Kenneth Maltice (Doug Hansen) and Morgan Moody (Beck Weathers). According to dramaturge Corinna Jarosch, instead of realistically depicting the mountain world, an attempt was made "to make the hallucinations of the mountaineers visible". The plot was moved to a mountain sanatorium in reference to Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain. There the choir, which in the production of the premiere still had a commentary outside the plot, took over the role of the sick and also staged the psychological conflicts of the main characters. A further point of reference was that Mann's novel was published only three months after the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, which was also referenced in the opera and was also fatal.
The opera takes place on May 10 and 11, 1996. Due to the bad weather, several expeditions are trying to reach the summit of Everest at the same time. Due to a bottleneck at the Hillary Step the ascent of the group of Rob Hall is delayed. He leads his customer Doug Hansen, who had already failed on the mountain last year, to the summit despite the exceeded time mark. Another member of his group, the pathologist Beck Weathers, is already severely weakened. Because his eyes cause him problems, he has given up and waits for the return of the two.
1. Prologue: "Is this how it ends?". At the beginning only the crackling of the shortwave receiver can be heard. As the orchestra slowly begins, the heights of Everest gradually appear in the fog. Beck lies unconscious in a snowdrift. The Everest Dead Choir wonders if these are his last breaths.
2. Everest Summit – 2.30 p.m.. Rob reaches the summit and enjoys the beauty of the mountain. He wants to follow the other members of his group who have already started the descent as soon as Doug has reached the goal. The choir reminds us how dying begins – up here every second counts because light and oxygen are limited.
4. Doug's ascent. Rob helps the weakened Doug with the last steps to the summit. The choir reminds of the advancing time. Doug collects his last forces. He thinks about his motivation for the tour (aria: "One more step"). Rob takes a photo.
5. photos of Jan. A flashback shows Rob's wife Jan in her colonial house in New Zealand. They take souvenir photos. Jan has also climbed Everest as a doctor on a joint expedition. This time she couldn't travel because of her pregnancy. She has to think about how Ruth Mallory waited in vain for her husband George to return in 1924. The flashback ends. Doug has breathing problems and needs Rob's help.
6. Doug collapses. At 16:15 Rob pushes to leave. But Doug is too weak for the descent. Rob tries in vain to reach the base camp by radio to get help and oxygen.
7. Beck clicks out of the line. Beck hallucinates again. You see Meg jumping the rope. Beck stares at the rope without noticing his daughter. Even when she addresses him directly, he doesn't recognize her. He takes the rope and straps himself to it. Back to consciousness, he realizes that Rob and Doug are overdue. He hardly understands why this expedition was so important to him that he left his wife and children behind. Nevertheless, this is the place he wants to be. The choir repeats his thoughts like an echo. It begins to snow and the sunset is approaching. Mike Groom, another expedition member, finds him and urges him to descend, as you can't wait any longer for Rob and Doug. He begins to abseil Beck. A storm breaks out.
8. The storm hits. During the storm you see Jan talking to the base camp. She realizes that the situation is critical for her husband. Rob also tries to get help from the camp. Finally, Guy Cotter reports, but he can't give him any hope. Rob's only chance is to leave Doug behind. Nevertheless, Rob tries to overcome the Hillary Step with Doug. The storm now reaches its greatest strength
9. The huddle. The members of the expedition, closely crowded in the storm, receive the confused Beck. He can no longer distinguish between individuals in the crowd and thinks he can see the organelles on the microscope slides in the different colors of their suits during his work as a pathologist. While Jan waits for the next call, Rob continues to try to bring Doug down the Hillary Step. All four recognize how close death is (quartet: "Too easy to die", Allegro dondolante).
10. The south summit. Rob ropes Doug down onto a small ledge where he immediately collapses. Rob climbs behind him and tries to secure his position. When he is finished, he realizes that Doug is dead. He reports to the base camp via radio and informs Guy about the situation. He tries to hold out until the next day. Guy tells him that they want to establish a direct connection with Jan via the satellite phone. Rob asks for help to be sent to him the next morning. The choir echoes his words.
11. The phone call. The choir announces the time: 2 o'clock in the morning. Rob's end is near. One after the other the members of the expedition leave. They leave Beck, who they already think is dead, unconscious. The telephone connection between Rob and Jan works. The two agree on the name "Sarah" for their unborn child and assure themselves of their love.
12. The cavalry's not coming. The choir members gather around Rob and Doug to welcome the two into their community of the dead. Jan's last words don't reach Rob anymore. While a projection shows the names of the Everest dead so far, the choir lists the different causes of their deaths. Bob and Doug join in their singing. Beck hallucinates how his daughter calls for him in the distance. He realizes that he has to dare the descent alone to save himself. No help will come. With his last strength he reaches the camp.
The plot is not told linearly, but is composed of individual report fragments and flashbacks.In addition, there are always interjections from the choir in the form of comments, questions, echoes or time information. At the end of the opera it becomes clear that the choir is composed of the souls of the many victims of the mountain who are waiting for "another name". The mountaineers' motivation always remains in the dark. Thus the authors avoided developing a kind of "heroic epic". The event does not take place in real time, but refers to the mountaineers' feelings.
The music sounds contemporary modern, but is nevertheless based on traditional harmonics and emotionally shaped. The orchestral sound fabric ties in with the Minimal music after John Adams. At the same time there are references to Giacomo Puccini, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten or Igor Stravinsky. There are numerous sound effects due to the large drums and the electronics involved, for example the crackling of the shortwave receiver, the radio conversations of the mountaineers or the howling of the wind. There is a focus on rhythm and the spectrum of timbres The orchestra as a whole has a leading role. The mountain itself has its own voice, which is mainly produced by the low wind instruments and the percussion. Talbot got his inspiration from the slow cracking movements of glacial masses over the rocky ground. Nevertheless, there are moments of melodious sound. When Rob desperately tries to reach the base camp after Doug's death ("Can anyone hear me?"), the orchestra falls silent completely. The listener already knows at this point that Rob will also die.
In the vocal parts, Talbot refers to traditional forms by means of indications such as "aria" or "quartet". Surprisingly, there are also some elements of dance music that have been particularly considered in the 2018 Hagen production. The emotional climax of the opera is Rob's last telephone conversation with his pregnant wife Jan, in which it is clear to both of them (unspoken) that Rob will not survive. Also here the orchestral accompaniment is reduced to a minimum.
The instrumentation consists of:
- woodwinds: three flutes (2. also piccolo, 3. also piccolo and alto flute); three oboes (3. also English horn); three B♭-clarinets (1. also A clarinet, 2. also E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3. also bass clarinet and double bass clarinet); two bassoons (2. also contrabassoon)
- brass section: four horns in F, three trumpets in C, two tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba
- timpani (also big drum, big hanging cymbal, China cymbal, tuned gong in F sharp)
- percussion (four players):
- tubular bells
- tuned gongs (one octave Turandot gongs and low B and C sharp)
- China basin
- Sizzle basin
- Ride basin
- two hanging basins (large and small)
- snare drum (preferably piccolo snare)
- temple blocks (high, medium, low)
- pu`ʻli (split bamboo sticks)
- little triangle
- egg shaker (for the effect of a ticking wristwatch)
- deep wood block
- wood birds
- finger cymbal
- two large drums (1 with snare effect by double bass strings glued to the underside)
- two tamtams (large and small)
- wind machine
- sound effects (samples), piano, celesta (also MIDI keyboard), harp
- strings: twelve first violins, ten second violins, eight violas, eight cellos, six double basses
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- Production information at Music Sales Classical, accessed July 6, 2018.
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- Heidi Waleson, Marc Staudacher (Übersetzung): "Fragmente der Verzweiflung", review of the premiere in Dallas, 2015, in: Opernwelt, March 2015, p. 44.
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- Fred Cohn: "Everest & La Wally", review of the premiere in Dallas 2015, in: Opera News, January 30, 2015, accessed July 6, 2018.
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