The world took note in 1996 when eight climbers perished in a blizzard on their way down from the summit of Mount Everest. In 1997, the journalist Jon Krakauer, a survivor of the expedition, wrote the bestselling Into Thin Air, the first of some half-dozen books by people who were there. But how quickly we forget. In the end, the least ephemeral memorial may prove to be a work of art.
Scripted by the American librettist Gene Scheer, scored by the British composer Joby Talbot, the 75-minute Everest received its world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2015, going on to a string of revivals in the U.S. and abroad. Now, Dallas streams this intimate epic as what may well be the world’s first “graphic novel opera,” produced by San Francisco’s chamber ensemble Opera Parallèle.
How durable the genre will prove in the long run, who knows? This pilot is a beauty, fusing words, music, imagery, action, and thought into a textbook Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagnerian in all but length. A model of dramatic concision, Scheer’s scenario shuttles among interior monologues, flashbacks, desperate phone calls, and the timeless wisdom of a spectral, omniscient chorus. Talbot, for his part, charts the climbers’ journeys on the threshold of nonbeing in music that at one extreme caresses like dancing snowflakes of light and at the other annihilates with the force of a black hole.
As realized by the director Brian Staufenbiel in concert with the Rauschenbergian illustrator Mark Simmons, and the director of photography David Murakami, the animated-graphic novel treatment transposes personal chronicles (read “documentary”) into a stoic paradigm of the fragile human condition. The overarching narrative unfurls as rhapsody mostly in diaphanous rooftop-of-the-world blues, peopled by digitized avatars still haunted by the presence of the living singers.
Standouts among the cast include Sasha Cooke as an expectant mother back in the United States, Hadleigh Adams as one of the lost, and Nathan Granner as the can-do guide who stays behind. Nichole Paiement conducts.
Everest is available to watch on the Dallas Opera’s streaming Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii