By Linda Smith
May 10 and 11, 1996 were the two deadliest days on Mount Everest, claiming the lives of eight climbers both new and experienced.
South Col expedition survivor and Dallas-area pathologist Dr. Beck Weathers never expected to get a call at his office from a librettist. After looking up the definition of a librettist on Google, Weathers went on to talk with the accomplished Gene Scheer for a combined eight hours of interviews that would become part of the text of the opera “Everest.” Amusingly, the definition of a librettist on Google reads as such: “In opera, the libretto is the words or lyrics, as distinct from the music. Mozart composed the music to his operas, but the librettos were written by someone else. The life of the librettist is often a thankless one. If the opera is a success, nobody mentions the libretto.”
The world premiere of “Everest” will take place at the Winspear Opera House on Jan. 30, with additional performances Feb. 1, 4 and 7. The opera will be preceded by the final act of “La Wally,” an 1892 opera by Alfredo Catalani, which is also his final and most well-known work, according to operanews.com. The Italian opera will end, and “Everest” will begin, with English singing and English supertitles shown above the screen.
The opera will feature the talents of many accomplished musicians at every level of production. Conductor Nicole Paiement was actually announced as the Dallas Opera’s first principal guest conductor, with general director and CEO Keith Cerny calling her “a logical addition” to the opera house “as he continues the company’s commitment to new work,” according to an operanews.com article entitled “The Mountain Climber.” During a workshop at the beginning of “Everest” rehearsals, Paiement described their meetings as “an amazing six days of collaborative work, a week of complete collaboration between composer, librettist and conductor.”
Conductor Joby Talbot, who has composed for symphony, ballet, film, chamber music and choral works, will be making his operatic debut with the music for “Everest.” Both Paiement in the operanews.com article and Scheer at a recent Dallas talk about the opera commended Talbot’s ability to create a unique sound world for the opera.
“There may be five percussionists in the pit, but it is not about volume,” Paiement said. “It is about colors and textures — a storm, the wind,” which results in “a mindscape rather than a landscape.”
Scheer has written other operas for the Dallas Opera, including the 2010 world premiere of “Moby-Dick” and the 2001 opera “Thérèse Raquin,” which according to genescheer.com/bio was cited by Opera News as one of the ten best recordings of 2002. Scheer was inspired to write the text for “Everest” after reading “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, which is lauded as one of the best portrayals of the events, though it has also come under scrutiny for his presentation of events.
Weathers and Scheer participated in a Dallas Opera Perspectives discussion on Jan. 14 in which they described Weathers’ turn to climbing later in his life. He had suffered with severe depression for much of his life, which left him debilitated and constantly in a weak condition.
“One day on the side of the road, I saw a sign that said ‘Learn to climb here,’” Weathers said. “I’m scared witless of heights and I thought it would be really interesting to confront that fear.”
He and a friend took a three-day course on mountain climbing, and at the end he “was hooked.” He said that he almost immediately thought of Everest, and that he was also inspired by Dick Bass, the first man to climb the “Seven Summits,” or the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents. Weathers joined a group led by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants, which ascended the mountain via the South Col and included Krakauer. Another group led by Scott Fisher, a competitor and the owner of Mountain Madness, went up the North Ridge.
Weathers elaborated that Everest is “not the place to learn whether you like climbing or not.” He described the mountain as not being a difficult climb technically, but a mountain that is plagued with constant melting of ice and snowstorms. On the first day of the ascent, Weathers began losing his vision due to a previous radial keratotomy surgery, which is complicated at high altitudes and with overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. He made Hall aware of this and Hall wanted him to continue climbing. It was dark, so Weathers insisted that he would stay on the balcony (about 27,000 feet high) until the sun came up and join the group. Hall told him that he would come for him in 30 minutes.
“I never thought that he would not come back,” Weathers said.
Weathers began descending with guide Michael Groom but a blizzard separated Weathers and 10 others in the storm. Others in his group and the North Ridge climbers found Weathers at different points but after he disappeared one night, the climbers believed he was near death and returned to Camp IV. Hall and seven others died of hypothermia that day and into the next, while Weathers eventually went into a hypothermic coma for about 22 hours. When he woke up, he found his hands completely nonfunctional and part of his nose claimed by frostbite; he was still unable to see. He was left to die comfortably, but he awoke the next morning coherent, and he was helped by fellow climbers to a lower camp, where he was given one of the highest altitude medical evacuations ever performed by helicopter. Upon his return, his right arm was amputated halfway between the elbow and wrist, all fingers on his left hand were removed along with parts of his feet, and his nose was amputated and reconstructed with tissue from his ear and forehead.
The opera will incorporate other aspects of Weathers’ life, including his family life and the tension with his wife, who wanted to divorce him when he went to Everest, but who “gave him a year” when he returned, in which they mended their relationship. Given the talented creative team, and accomplished orchestra and singers, this opera is sure to present this failed expedition in a way that will encapsulate all the events and emotions surrounding the 1996 tragedy and those it affected.
The opera will perform on Friday, Jan. 30, Wednesday, Feb. 4, and Saturday, Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Feb. 1 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets start at $19 and run up to $179.