By Linda Smith
Librettist Gene Scheer elaborated during an Opera Perspectives talk that the audience should not view “Everest” as a documentary, but rather as an artistic lens through which to view the 1996 tragedy. On May 10 and 11 of that year, a combined eight climbers died, and that year would go on to become the deadliest year on the mountain until a 2014 tragedy. Upon hearing these facts, one wonders how such an artful presentation could be made of such a disaster.
In fact, this is the stuff operas are made of. Throughout the course of operatic history, verisimilitude has been a factor never fully achieved in opera. Madama Butterfly closes her titular opera with the enchanting “Con onor muore” (“To Die with Honor”), only to have her sadness at the loss of her love consume her and result in her stabbing herself to death. Even typically light-hearted operas of Mozart, like “The Marriage of Figaro,” include ridiculous scenes, like one in which the page Cherubino hides ineffectively under a blanket in the Countess’s chambers, only to have the Count actually not notice his presence.
“Everest” and the fourth act of “La Wally” that opened the double bill are no exception. However, both have inherent qualities that make them appealing to audiences. While I found “La Wally” to be dry and too Wagnerian (or superfluous and unnecessary) for an Italian opera, I saw its preparatory place for “Everest.” Both operas center around a mountain, and one that eventually leads to the death of different characters. In “La Wally,” the mountains serve as a place of refuge at the beginning, while in “Everest,” the mountain proves not only a physical taxation for all, but also the means by which each character overcomes his deepest struggles.
For guide Rob Hall, the mountain is a way for him to keep his promise to client Doug Hansen, who had tried to climb Everest the previous year and failed. It serves in a reciprocal way for Doug. For Beck Weathers, the mountain makes him face the distance he sees between himself and his daughter, his son and his wife, as well as a way for him to finally overcome his debilitating depression.
“Everest” proves itself to be an impressive feat, beautifully executed by cast and crew. The set is a series of white blocks that appear to be precariously stacked on top of each other. However, projections onto the stage give a realistic snowy and mountainous environment. At different times the projections change to a barbecue on a grassy lawn where Beck recounts his Everest story at a summer party with friends; to cells that are “what he understands” as a pathologist; and to flowers for Rob Hall’s pregnant wife, Dr. Jan Arnold as she poses for photographs.
Besides the superb singing from the four main characters, a chorus donned in all-white climbers’ gear (which allow the projections to cover their clothing and make them haunting additions to the set) sing eerie verses doubling the strife of each character. The orchestra also beautifully captures the “sound world” of Everest, with violins and winds combining their various timbres to portray the howling wind of the area. The libretto, or words of the opera, are wonderful lyrics that give insight into each character in a few words. For example, in the barbecue scene, Beck recounts climbing Mount Vinson, Antarctica’s tallest peak, a place where he saw three suns due to a phenomenon caused by the horizon. At the aforementioned Opera Perspectives talk, Weathers described the experience as beautiful and life-changing. That it was included in the opera in such an intimate setting shows the truth and dedication of those involved in the 1996 climb.
Overall, this was one of my favorite operas. After only seeing Italian opera (including “La Wally”), it is odd to hear operatic singing in English. However, the ethos of each character was depicted well: Kevin Burdette sang as Weathers with a deep Texan accent that Weathers has in real life. In fact, my only complaint is that from my seat during “La Wally,” I saw two bright orange strike tape corners, presumably for a device that a character falls onto at one point. Otherwise, the double bill of the fourth act of “La Wally” and “Everest” artfully shows two separate metaphorical mountains and how people can face them. It also shows that Dallas Opera is ready to ascend to new heights in tackling such bold operas.