United States Joby Talbot, Everest – An Immersive Experience: Vocal ensemble, Soloists and Orchestra of Opera Parallèle / Nicole Paiement (conductor). Z Space, San Francisco, 3.2.2023. (HS)
Libretto – Gene Scheer
Director – Brian Staufenbiel
Projection – David Murakami
Illustrator – Mark Simmons
Scenic design – Jacquelyn Scott
Sound engineer – Miles Lassi
Jan Arnold – Sasha Cooke
Rob Hall – Nathan Granner
Beck Weathers – Kevin Burdette
Doug Hansen – Hadleigh Adams
Meg Weathers – Charlotte Fanvu
The audience, clad in white or draped with white ponchos, formed part of the scenery. The music, prerecorded and presented in surround sound, enveloped the 150-seat space as did projected drawings of Mount Everest around the audience. It was a unique way to present an opera and, in the case of Everest, compellingly apt.
A combination of tragedy, emotional peaks and graphic-book drawings by illustrator Mark Simmons kept the opening-night audience in thrall for all 68 minutes of Everest: An Immersive Experience at Z Space, an open-format location in San Francisco that specializes in avant-garde theater. Music by Joby Arnold (no stranger to classical concert halls and movie scores) and libretto by Gene Scheer (who has done similarly excellent work for Jake Heggie and Wynton Marsalis) spun a tragic tale, the stuff of great operas for centuries.
The one-act piece, which debuted at Dallas Opera in 2015, became a pandemic project for Opera Parallèle, a feisty San Francisco company; and for Simmons, known for his graphic novels and teaching at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. The result was a motion-graphic storybook video of the opera to a new recording conducted by the company’s music director, Nicole Paiement (who conducted the Dallas world premiere), with a cast that included singers who have starred with major opera companies internationally.
The video version, released in 2021, used technology to capture the singers’ facial motions and sync them with the studio-recorded music in the comic-book-art projections. ‘The singers’ own movements control their characters’ animated expressions, creating an authentic experience for the audience,’ is how the company describes the process. It is realistic enough that the cartoon singers seem to actually act and sing for us. Projected on the surrounding scrim and scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott’s peaks-and-crags set, it truly felt as if we in the audience were immersed in the tale.
And what a tale. The attempt in May 1996 to scale the world’s tallest peak claimed eight lives when a blizzard struck unexpectedly. It spawned several best-selling books, among them John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Documentaries included an IMAX film by a crew that happened to be on hand. Wisely, Scheer’s libretto doesn’t try to tell all of their stories, and instead focuses on three climbers in one of the groups, contrasting two men who died on descent with one who somehow made it down.
Rather than relate the story chronologically, the opera weaves in scenes from the climbers’ past to delve into what drove them to take the risk. More touching is the wife who stayed home only because she was pregnant. The ghosts of the hundreds of climbers who lost their lives over the years on the mountain enhance the score with eerie choral commentary and move through the scenery in ghostly blue.
Portraying the climbers were tenor Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, the tour leader, and baritone Hadleigh Adams as Doug Hansen, whom Hall encouraged to make a second go at the summit after Hansen fell short the previous year. Bass baritone Kevin Burdette sang the role of Beck Weathers, an experienced climber who managed to survive being stranded separately in the blizzard. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke portrayed Jan Arnold, Hall’s wife.
Granner and Adams brought sharply turned scenes to life as their story played out, interspersed with scenes of Burdette as Weathers in isolation, hallucinating conversations with his daughter (treble Charlotte Fanvu as Meg), and a moving solo when the experienced climber realizes no one is coming and he must save himself.
Like thought bubbles in a good graphic novel, arias evoke the inner dialogues of all four. There is a striking, long-distance love duet between Hall and Arnold, in which they decide on a name for their expected child on a satellite phone call shortly before his death. Late in the opera, a quartet sums up the human side of the tragedy.
Paiement’s familiarity with the score moved the recorded music along seamlessly, emphasizing its lyric moments as beautifully as its discordant sections underlining the power of Mother Nature.
Motion-capture technology makes cartoon characters seem to come to life, their faces reflecting the content of what they sing, their mouths moving realistically. The setting in these images allows the space to evoke the vastness of the Himalayas better than a video screen.
Performances continue through at least 12 February.