This year the Dallas Opera will achieve a feat that is akin to reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain: produce three world-premiere operas, each commissioned by the organization. That would be big news for any size opera company, but for a group as large as the Dallas Opera, which ranks in the top 15 in the country in terms of budget (about $15 million), it’s major news.
Two of these operas, which will be presented later this year, are from two of contemporary opera’s best-known composers. Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, with a libretto by Terrence McNally, opens Oct. 30, and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus begins Dec. 4.
But there is steady buzz for the first new work of the year, Everest, because it features music by Joby Talbot, a British composer making his opera debut. Talbot has written several film scores and made a splash in the ballet world with such works as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, both of which were choreographed by the highly acclaimed Christopher Wheeldon at the Royal Ballet.
The one-act Everest opens Friday and is paired with Act IV of Alfredo Catalani’s 1892 opera La Wally, which is set in the Austrian Alps.
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“What the two pieces have in common is that they’re set on mountains,” says Talbot, “and they’re dealing with people in extreme conditions. I think it’ll be exciting to see the similarities of these operas from composers more than a century apart.”
Talbot is thrilled about his opera debut, especially considering his librettist is one of the best in the biz: Gene Scheer, whose work includes Heggie’s Moby-Dick, which premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2010.
Incidentally, Scheer is tackling another new opera set on a mountain: Cold Mountain, which features music by Jennifer Higdon and will premiere at Santa Fe Opera in August.
Everest is inspired by the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest in which several climbers were caught in a blizzard, killing eight of them. One of the survivors was Texan Beck Weathers. The opera focuses on Weathers and other climbers, and the production includes professional mountain-climber supernumeraries on the stage.
The cast includes such international opera stars as tenor Andrew Bidlack, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, bass Kevin Burdette and baritone Craig Verm. There have been several books and movies about the incident, but the libretto is based on Scheer’s own interviews with survivors, family members and experts.
“Nature is unforgiving, and it’s powerful, and these men trying to test nature is a story of hubris,” says director Leonard Foglia. “There’s also a love story and other themes common in opera. That’s what I’m drawn to — why is there this desire to put yourself so close to death? It’s about endurance to a certain degree, but you’re also putting yourself at great risk.”
Telling stories through music
Keith Cerny, the Dallas Opera’s general director and CEO, first heard Talbot’s music when a piece from a Wheeldon ballet was performed at a gala at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. He later saw Talbot and Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in London, and then took Scheer to see it in Toronto.
“I’m glad there was something about Alice in London that made [Cerny] think, ‘This person should write an opera,’” Talbot says.
“I’ve been trying to tell the stories without [the performers] being able to say anything out loud,” says Talbot, referring to his ballet work. “With this it was a breath of fresh air, because there are vocals to help with the narrative. I didn’t want to write an opera where people would say that the music wasn’t vocalistic.”
In the story of Everest, the elements — wind, snow and the creaking of glaciers on the mountain — play into the music, but he also found interesting inspiration for some of the motifs.
“I was trying to find reasons why I’d want them to be singing,” Talbot says. “You can use music in an interesting way to show the effects of hypoxia and altitude sickness. I was reading about the effects it has on your brain, where the cells are dying one after the other. Something spoke to [Weathers] and told him to get out of the snow bank and walk to find help.”
He also used his memory of music he heard when he visited a Tibetan monastery in Scotland during his college years.
“I remember hearing this music that was a series of bangs and crashes, meant to evoke this music ‘inside yourself’ when you’re in meditation,” he says. “The mountain is a noisy place, so there’s this constant sense of moving.
“Everest has two very contrasting voices speaking. There’s the voice of the mountain — it is kind of atonal, for lack of a better word, with these strange voices. Then there’s the music for the humans, which is more lyrical.”
That Everest is one of three world premieres at the Dallas Opera in 2015 is a feat that isn’t lost on anyone who’s paying attention to new opera. It’s major, even as it follows the national trend of new opera commissions, which is happening at opera companies across the country, from the Fort Worth Opera to the Seattle Opera.
“I’ve seen a huge change in attitudes about new opera,” says Foglia, who directed the premieres of Terrence McNally’s Master Class and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, and now focuses on new operas. He directed the premieres of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers and Moby-Dick, and will direct Cold Mountain in Santa Fe.
“I came from theater, where everybody wants the new and different, and when I directed Dead Man Walking I was so stunned as we took the work to several companies, they were all petrified that no one would come,” he said. “In the 10 years after that, I’ve seen a seismic shift in the excitement about new opera, not just from the companies but from opera patrons.”
“I’m one person, and I have three world premieres in 2015,” he adds, referring to Everest, Cold Mountain and El Pasado Nunca Se Termina/The Past Is Never Finished, a mariachi opera that will premiere in March at Lyric Opera of Chicago and then travel to Houston Grand Opera in May.
Dallas Opera’s year to climb the summit of commissions is huge for fans, but the selection of Talbot to create his first opera — further commissions could greatly depend on reactions to Everest — is something Talbot won’t forget.
“This is an exciting moment for me,” he says. “You see it progress every day as it grows and grows and grows. [One day] we started to sing it, and then it becomes dialogue and communication between characters. The whole thing has been this magical unfurling for me.”