* Notes *
Back in 2021, still deep in the pandemic, Opera Parallèle created an animated film version of Joby Talbot's 2015 one-act opera Everest, which was released online by Dallas Opera. The work is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Last night an installation of this film (pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) opened at Z Space in San Francisco. Billed as "an immersive experience," it certainly was a full and arresting piece of theater.
Conductor Nicole Paiement usually is the star of an Opera Parallèle production, but here the music was recorded. Director Brian Staufenbiel was at the forefront of this ambitious production, and it all felt very real despite the fact that it is not a live performance in the usual sense. Sound engineer Miles Lassi did a lot of the heavy lifting here to surround us with sound. It was very effective in creating the ambiance, I liked feeling the music in the floor, it very much felt like we were inside a world. It was much more interesting than watching at home, something that truly I could not get into, even when it was the only option for performances until pretty recently.
The set, designed by Jacquelyn Scott, is on all sides, made up of 9 projectors on various surfaces, some flat and some that look more like mountains. The audience was asked to either wear white or cover up with white ponchos, I very much enjoy a directive like this and kept thinking to myself that "I am snow!" The graphic novel aesthetic provided by illustrator Mark Simmons is pleasing, even the supertitles are done in lettering that looks like it is from a comic strip. The production makes use of motion capture to animate the faces of the singers, and this works well, though occasionally things do feel a little creepy. Sometimes the eyes are too unwavering, the lack of blinking unnerving somehow. The Projection Designer and Director of Photography David Murakami did a good job making sure everything was as seamless as possible.
The opera focuses on three climbers caught in a blizzard on Mount Everest on May 10 and 11, 1996. Joby Talbot's atmospheric and ghostly music did not make a huge impact on me, though usually I am more interested in this aspect of opera, this one very much was more about the drama of the narrative. Librettist Gene Scheer's words involved a lot of numbers, there were many references to what time of day it was exactly.
The cast has many fine singers, and that much was very evident. There is a vocal quartet that acts as a chorus on a smaller scale and includes soprano Shawnette Sulker, mezzo soprano Whitney Steele, tenor Kevin Gino, and bass Matt Boehler (who also plays guides Mike Groom and Guy Cotter). It was great to hear Charlotte Fanvu sing as the daughter of one of the climbers, as she appeared in a non-singing role in Sophia's Forest last year.
Baritone Hadleigh Adams gave a heartfelt performance as Doug Hansen, a postal worker and amateur mountain climber. Bass Kevin Burdette sang Beck Weathers, another client on this Everest expedition, with much warmth. As the expedition leader Rob Hall, tenor Nathan Granner was very sympathetic and sang well with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who played his wife Jan Arnold. Cooke's voice is beautifully clean, it isn't a surprise to learn she created this role in the 2015 live production of this opera in Dallas.
This performance was proceeded by Nepalese appetizers that included momo (dumplings), chow mein, and samosas. Kheer (rice pudding) was served afterwards.
There was a land acknowledgement not only to the Ramaytush Ohlone (the indigenous people of the San Francisco peninsula), but also to the Sherpa people, who are native to the Himalayas, where the opera takes place.
The audience was entirely quiet and engaged during the performance. Perhaps being part of the opera and inside of it made people behave well.