By general consensus, Austin Opera continues to top one new-opera summit after another, among them "The Manchurian Candidate," "Silent Night" and now "Everest."
The latest one is about real people who live — or have lived — in our time.
In May 1996, a blizzard struck the world’s highest mountain as eight climbers clung to its ledges, cracks and niches. Books, articles and movies came next, in part because it was among the first disasters in the world to be followed in real time on the Internet. The event brought attention to the annual deaths of people trying to reach the summit in ever-increasing numbers.
Gene Scheer and Joby Talbot turned two strands of these events into an opera, not based on earlier available sources, but rather taken from new interviews with survivors, their families and colleagues. They focused on three climbers — Beck Weathers, Rob Hall and Doug Hansen — during their time on or near the summit. Two die, one survives.
"Everest" premiered in Dallas in 2015.
For the Austin production, the principal performers crawled around atop stacked boxes that were arranged downstage, something we came to accept intuitively as places on Mount Everest, thanks in part to director Leonard Foglia’s well-anchored staging.
Behind the principals curved dark-clad members of a crucial chorus, sometimes standing, sometimes seated, then a full complement of instrumentalists.
Meanwhile, videos streamed on a wide screen behind the orchestra. The images included crisp photography of mountaintops, stunning skyscapes and thematic abstractions.
All this concentrated visual stimulus worked in close tandem with Talbot’s music, which conductor Joseph Mechavich made uniformly compelling and present. Talbot’s music not only picks up the sounds of the natural world, as well as the narrative’s dramatic rise and fall, it also closely reflects the internal personal dramas of the climbers and related off-mountain characters.
Rob, a guide, has reached the summit and admires the beauty at the top of the world. Sung purely and sincerely by Andrew Bidlack, Rob helps Doug, who did not make it to top in a previous climb, reach the top.
Played by Craig Verm, Doug is clearly wiped out at this stage and his oxygen tank empties. Rob, however, refuses to leave him behind, so they both die slowly.
Lending these scenes even more operatic intensity was the periodic presence of Heather Johnson to the side as Jan Arnold, Rob’s wife, who talks by satellite phone with Rob almost until his death.
Their last moments were quiet, unforced but impossible to shake.
The character, however, who absorbs a big share of our attention is Beck Weathers as played by Kevin Burdette. The surviving Dallas pathologist is given delusional vigor by Burdette, but there’s also a lot to work with: Weathers’ psychological journey is complex and fascinating.
The real Beck Weathers, along with Talbot and Scheer, spoke at a post-show talk. Weathers, who bears the scars of the climb, said that he underwent a drastic personality change after the disaster. The experience helped pull him up from long-ongoing depression and brought him closer to his wife and children.
In case you wondered, you couldn’t get me anywhere near the base camp of a major mountain, much less any higher, and I have never understood the compunction to climb the world’s signature peaks.
Yet this opera, with its characters painstakingly dramatized and, in Weathers’ case, incredibly there in person, pulled me completely into its universe. So much so that I considered returning for the next performance and another 70 minutes on the top of the world.