The Dallas Opera's Everest Will Get You High

The Dallas Opera's Everest Will Get You High
Karen Almond

The opera will always be operatic. This may seem a redundant, or obvious thing to write, but this can be the paramount struggle for a contemporary audience member. If you didn't grow up on staples like Madame Butterfly or Carmen -- and who really does anymore? -- it's unlikely you'll find yourself buying tickets to see anything that bills itself as an opera, especially anything that's not Puccini or Verdi.

This is not to say the opera lacks relevance. Certainly, writers are still penning librettos and composers are still creating music for the human voice. In fact, opera can still be seen at the forefront of musical progress. As recently as 2013, Phillip Glass has premiered new operas, and he's not the only one. Across the globe, opera is not dying, but like every art form, it's struggling to establish its place in the contemporary world. What are the sounds of an opera in the 21st century? What stories are best told this way? What are the interests, the societal fixations, the struggles, the fascinations that can be explored at the opera house? Here in Dallas, we are lucky to have a company interested in engaging the international dialogue on opera in the 21st century. With commissions, premieres and a brave amount of experimentation, The Dallas Opera is presenting some of the country's most exciting new work, alongside crowd-pleasing classics. And they've reached a new summit with Everest, an opera that is both intelligently crafted and easy to like.

You might recognize the name of Everest's librettist, Gene Scheer, from when he worked with Jake Heggie on the world premiere of Moby-Dick. He's the mastermind behind this opera, which was inspired by the ill-fated expedition in May 1996 up the world's tallest mountain led by New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall. Since it was inspired by events less than 20 years ago, it's very much a product of contemporary society -- when Hall speaks to his wife for the last time, she sings into a clunky telephone receiver. While Robert Brill's set itself is an abstracted mountain surface (made of large cube structures and slightly resembling an oversized foam pit at a gymnastics studio), the props add touches of realism to the scene. This story is, after all, very much true.

You'll hear an interest in balancing realism with abstraction in composer Joby Talbot's score. Which is to say that Talbot doesn't adhere to this frustrating contemporary interest in using modernist opera principles, like atonality, to create "edgy" work. He comes to opera with an extensive resume as a composer for film and works for dance, and Everest is Talbot's first opera. This may explain his ability to create a piece that contemporary audiences will enjoy. In moments, his music is swimmingly melodic, like when Hall expresses love for his wife; in others, it shrieks with dissonance, as though the life-giving melodies have been sucked from the music. But in all pieces it hums and whirls, heightening Everest's drama.

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This narrative is brought to life by the stunning talent of Andrew Bidlack as the expedition leader, Rob Hall, with Craig Verm and Kevin Burdette as two men along on this $65,000 adventure vacation. And this story of men willing to risk their lives just to say they've accomplished something is wrapped up so closely in contemporary discontents. These elements are crafted beautifully into a large, elegant opera that might be the perfect gateway into the art form for a new generation.

As if aware of this conversation, or maybe for an audience used to paying for more than Everest's 75 minutes of entertainment, the Dallas Opera programmed a compressed version of La Wally, Alfredo Catalani's 1892 tragic opera about a rebellious young woman who escapes a loveless marriage by climbing high into the Austrian Alps. It sets a historical precedence for the subject matter of Everest, and contains one of opera's most beautiful arias to boot ("Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" ), bridging the opera generational gap.

Everest is a musically stunning, cinematically thrilling opera -- tenants long held by the art form, but updated here for a new generation, and updated brilliantly.

There will be two more performances of The Dallas Opera's La Wally/Everest at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets at thedallasopera.org.


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