In the spring of 1996, this magazine sent Jon Krakauer to Everest in search of a story. There, Krakauer was caught in a deadly blizzard that killed eight people. Five months later, Outside published his firsthand report of the disaster, which was followed in 1997 by the award-winning book Into Thin Air.
You’re probably familiar with the story. The catastrophe—the deadliest day in Everest’s history until an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas last year—has been the subject of five other nonfiction books, one made-for-TV special, a documentary, and an upcoming Hollywood movie (planned for a 2015 release).
Now, it’s been retold as an opera.
Everest, which premiered last weekend at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, is a 70-minute fever-dream version of the famous story. At its emotional core, it’s a show about the value of each breath and step. And like many accounts of the disaster, it’s about both the cost of ambition and the collective hope we derive from challenging ourselves in the world’s most unforgiving places.
Those who’ve read Krakauer’s accounts will be familiar with the plot. The opera follows Rob Hall (played by Andrew Bidlack), an accomplished New Zealand mountaineer, and his client Doug Hansen (Craig Verm) as they make their way to the summit and attempt to descend through the blizzard. The two climbers perish, but not before Hall manages to make a final call to his pregnant wife, Jan (Sasha Cooke). The show also tracks Beck Weathers (Kevin Burdette), a client of Hall’s who survives the ordeal despite being left for dead twice.
While Everest fanatics might quibble about a few of the exchanges and artistic depictions (for instance, it shows Hansen’s death, though his body has never been found and the exact cause of his death remains unknown), the opera stays true to most of the story’s facts. And there are some very moving moments, such as when Hall, told to leave Hansen to die and trek back to camp alone, replies, “He can hear you.”
Elite mountain climbing may seem like an awkward subject for the stage, but it’s a fitting pairing. Opera, like Everest, is more dramatic and emotional than everyday life.
To transform the story into a libretto, the text upon which the action is based, the Dallas Opera tapped American songwriter and award-winning librettist Gene Scheer, whose 2010 Moby-Dick was one of the most successful operas of the past decade. To pen the musical score, Scheer teamed up with British composer Joby Talbot, who has worked with bands like the White Stripes and whose eclectic resume includes everything from composing music for a theatrical rendition of Alice in Wonderland to scoring the film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.
“It’s a very dramatic story, and it’s a very poignant story,” says Scheer. “That’s what I’m always looking for in an opera—the chance to watch people making decisions in real time that will affect those people and their families for the rest of their lives.”
To create Everest, Scheer immersed himself in the 1996 season. He read the original Outside feature. He studied Krakauer’s book and three other book-length accounts. He watched the made-for-TV movie and the documentaries. He researched George Mallory and the long history of people who’ve died on Everest. And he spoke with survivors from the other climbing teams, people who’d worked with Hall, and families of the deceased.
But Scheer spent the most time with Weathers, who lives in Dallas. Over several days, Weathers told him the story of being left for dead in the blizzard and walking to camp on his own. He lost his nose, a hand, and all the fingers from his remaining hand. As difficult as the ordeal was, Weathers also credits the experience with saving his marriage and drawing him out of depression.
“You’re trying to be true to the spirit of the thing,” Scheer said. “That’s a hard thing to define, but that’s the task. Ultimately, when you’re telling a story in an opera, music is the primary means of communication. That doesn’t mean that the words aren’t important, but the job of music is to allow people to feel this experience.”
When he finished the libretto, Scheer went over to Weathers’ house and sang it to him. Weathers, he recalls, began to weep.
The production itself required months of planning, designing, and rehearsing. At the premiere, the set was composed of about 50 four-foot-square white blocks, stacked and scattered around the stage. Many of the blocks were backdrops for projections: a map of Nepal and Everest, a view of the mountain’s summit, grass and beer bottles from a hallucination of a backyard barbecue. Throughout the performances, the actors climbed—and, on occasion, dragged one another—over them.
There was also a chorus: a handful of singers dressed in white standing on the outer blocks. They sang poetic questions and recited the time as the climbers struggled, with the inevitable end closing in. At the end of the opera, the names of all the climbers who’ve died on Everest were projected on the stage.
Following the final curtain, Scheer and Talbot were called to the stage. They were given a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. For an opera that subtly emphasizes how critical every second can be, it was a fitting tribute.