The Dallas Opera announced Tuesday evening that it has commissioned a new opera, Everest, a one-act piece that will debut in February 2015. The opera will be scored by British composer Joby Talbot, and the book will be written by Moby-Dick librettist and frequent Jake Heggie collaborator Gene Scheer.
The new work will be based on the 1996 Everest disaster in which a number of climbers were trapped in a blizzard near the summit of the world’s highest peak, including Dallas resident Beck Weathers. Talbot, who is coming off the success of his ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) (commissioned by the Royal Ballet), is no stranger to music exposed to the elements. He has composed music inspired by the months of the year, wrote the soundtrack to the movie Arctic Tale, and collaborated on a dance with Carolyn Carlson and the Orchestra National de Lille entitled Tide Harmonic. Talbot says he has wanted to write an opera for years.
UPDATE: Last night at the Dallas Opera’s Composing Conversations lecture, Scheer and Talbot discussed the commission of Everest with me on stage at the Winspear’s Hamon Hall.
Talbot described himself as an iconoclast, as someone who thrives creatively when he is working on material that rubs the status quo. Speaking about recent work with a progressive dance company in the Netherlands, he lamented that his usual experimentation and boundary-pushing would feel too conventional (“Maybe I’ll just compose a waltz,” he said). This is the composer, after all, who manipulated an orchestra to imitate the feedback and distortion of a White Stripes album in a setting of the Detroit band’s Aluminum. That’s why Talbot composing an opera is such an intriguing proposition. “Maybe this isn’t the right place to say this,” he said last night, “But I have a problem with most opera.” Working on the Dallas Opera commission, Talbot will have plenty of conventions to work against — an entire operatic canon of them. When asked what operas he does like, he jabbed, half jokingly, “The short ones.”
Earlier in the conversation, when speaking about his work on Alice in Wonderland, Talbot said he found it challenging to develop the narrative of the piece without using any words or dialogue, which is one reason why he exited about the relative narrative freedom of working with the operatic form. The words for Everest will be written by librettist Gene Scheer. Scheer brought up the topic of the 1996 Everest disaster when the composer and librettist first met about the commission in Toronto. Scheer said what intrigues him about the story is the stark confrontation with the elements, the ever-presence of the reality of death, and the arena for heroics. He has since been interviewing survivors about their experience on Everest, and while he said he doesn’t yet know what structure or approach the final work will take with the material, he said some of the anecdotes coming out of those interviews, such as one climber having met the first Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary, expand the possibilities of scope.
Talbot, who has often composed pieces that are influenced by thematic elements derived from the natural world (Sneaker Wave, Tide Harmonic, Arctic Tale), said he is likewise intrigued by the music possibilities created by the setting in the wind-blown desolation at the top of the earth. After the discussion I joked with the composer and librettist about the challenge of an opera in which the characters wear oxygen masks at high altitudes. They laughed and admitted there are many details still to work out.
Here’s the full release:
The Dallas Opera Is Proud to Announce
A Major New Commission:
CELEBRATED BRITISH COMPOSER JOBY TALBOT AND ACCLAIMED LIBRETTIST GENE SCHEER TEAM FOR
THE FIRST TIME TO CREATE A MOVING ONE-ACT, TDO WORLD PREMIERE—BASED ON A TRUE STORY!
TAKING DALLAS BY STORM IN FEBRUARY 2015
New Commission Announced This Evening at the Dallas Opera’s Latest “Composing Conversation,” Focused on the Work of Joby Talbot
DALLAS, MAY 15, 2012 – The Dallas Opera is tremendously proud to announce the commissioning of a new original one-act opera by renowned British composer Joby Talbot (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and the critically acclaimed American librettist Gene Scheer (Moby-Dick, Cold Mountain) in their first joint project.
EVEREST is expected to command center stage in the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in February of 2015 (cast and specific dates to be announced at a later time).
This new commission, the first since the company announced that composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally are at work on Great Scott, a rapid-fire new comedy slated to open the Dallas Opera’s 2015-2016 Season, will become the fifth world premiere work commissioned by the Dallas Opera for the new millenium: Thérèse Raquin, Moby-Dick, A Question of Light (song cycle in partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art) Great Scott, and now, Everest.
Based on a harrowing 1996 expedition (the subject of two films and at least five books thus far) to summit the world’s tallest mountain peak. Everest will blend documented facts and contemporary recollections of the transformative journey experienced by Everest survivors, with flights of the imagination designed to keep audience members transfixed in this harshly beautiful place at the top of the world.
This project will mark composer Joby Talbot’s first foray into opera, after establishing himself as a significant composer of original works for the recording studio, stage and screen. Among his best-known composition are the rapturously received ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) commissioned by the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden and the National Ballet of Canada, and original film and British television scores including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the iconic science fiction of the late Douglas Adams, who also contributed the screenplay for the 2005 release.
“We thought it was vitally important to the success of this project to encourage Mr. Talbot to find a librettist with vast operatic experience and a collegial temperament,” explains Dallas Opera Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, who announced the new commission earlier this evening. “Gene Scheer, who has worked with us on several important commissions in recent years, immediately sprang to mind. We arranged for them to meet in Toronto and then again in New York,” Pell added, “and the composer and librettist evidently hit it off at once.”
“I’ve been intrigued by the idea of Joby Talbot composing for the opera stage since experiencing his brilliant work on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” says Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny. “I was fortunate enough to attend the premiere, which made a strong impression on me. It was clear that Joby’s score supported the ballet magnificently as it progressed through a wide range of scenes, characters, and stage effects. I found myself taking a serious interest in his body of work and quickly realized that this was a composer ‘without borders’; who had proven successes in film, ballet, choral writing, chamber music, orchestral writing, and many other genres—so, why not opera?
“And it goes without saying,” Mr. Cerny added, “that I’ve been in awe of Gene Scheer’s tremendous abilities as both a lyricist and librettist—whether capturing the essence of an American classic like Melville’s Moby-Dick for a 21st century audience, or creating the beautiful poetic language that flowed throughout our world premiere song cycle, A Question of Light—from the moment I arrived here in Dallas.
“We wouldn’t be enlisting Gene’s services for the fourth time if he didn’t have something very special to bring to the table.”
Composer Joby Talbot and Librettist Gene Scheer were on-hand for the announcement this evening in Nancy B. Hamon Hall. Work on the project will commence later this summer. Mr. Scheer is currently crafting the libretto for the 2015 Santa Fe Opera world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera, Cold Mountain, based on the best-selling 1997 Civil War novel by Charles Frazier, which won the National Book Award for Fiction and became an Academy Award winning film.
“I am thrilled to be working with Joby Talbot on this exciting new project for the Dallas opera,” says librettist Gene Scheer. “About a year ago, Jonathan Pell, the artistic director of the Dallas Opera, arranged for me to see Joby’s stunning ballet based on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in Toronto. In addition to being so impressed with the brilliance of the score, Joby and I got to spend quite a bit of time together. With each conversation it became more and more clear that Joby is someone who, in addition to his great musical gifts, has keen theatrical instincts and that an opportunity to collaborate with him would be a privilege indeed.
“As we discussed a number of subjects, the idea of doing a piece about the people who experienced the tragedy on Mount Everest in 1996 sparked both of our imaginations. The story, which captured the world’s attention when it happened, offers a wonderful chance for music to explore aspects of the human spirit. There is clearly one common theme that emerges from the stories of those who endured that storm over Everest. They all felt that their lives were profoundly changed by the tragedy and by the acts of heartbreaking heroism and love that they all experienced on the top of the world.”
Adds Mr. Scheer: “I look forward to working with Joby to find ways to illuminate those transformations and to bring this thrilling story to the Dallas opera.”
A similar sentiment was echoed by the composer, Joby Talbot, who writes: “I am enormously excited at the prospect of working with Gene Scheer and the Dallas Opera on Everest. I have been keen to write an opera for some years now. Many of my recent projects have been narrative pieces and I’ve found that I very much enjoy the challenge of communicating a story through music. In its breadth of scale and emotional drama, Everest seems to have all the ingredients for a wonderful collaboration.”
Full season subscriptions are now on sale (three performances) for the 2012-2013 “Pursuits of Passion” Season range from $75 to $1,020 through the Dallas Opera Ticket Services Office at 214.443.1000 or online at www.dallasopera.org. Student Rush best-available tickets are available for $25 (one per valid Student I.D.) at the Winspear box office, ninety minutes prior to each performance. Inner Circle seating may be higher.
JOBY TALBOT (Composer)
Joby Talbot’s compositional aesthetic threads through his classical and concert works; scores for film and television; and collaborations with major contemporary choreographers.
Talbot studied composition privately with Brian Dennis and Brian Elias, prior to receiving tuition from Simon Bainbridge at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A 1997 commission from the BBC Philharmonic resulted in Luminescence for string orchestra, quickly followed by the percussion and chamber ensemble piece Incandescence, initially written for the Brunel Ensemble and toured in 1999 by Evelyn Glennie and the London Sinfonietta, for whom Talbot went on to write Minus 1500 in 2001. Talbot’s first work for the BBC Proms was 2002’s à cappella The Wishing Tree for The Kings’ Singers; subsequently, the Proms commissioned Sneaker Wave (2004) for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and an arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor (2011) for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
In 2004, Talbot was named Classic FM’s first Composer In Residence, a project that culminated in the 2005 release of the album Once Around the Sun. Also in 2005, Nigel Short’s exceptional choral ensemble Tenebrae premiered Path Of Miracles, another à cappella work of four movements, which describes the ancient Christian pilgrimage across northern Spain from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. In 2006, Talbot completed the trumpet concerto Desolation Wilderness for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Turku Philharmonic orchestras, conducted by JoAnn Falletta and performed by acclaimed soloist Alison Balsom. The piece received its North American premiere, by former Chicago Symphony principal Craig Morris, in August 2009 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
Works for smaller ensembles have included Blue Cell for the Apollo Sax Quartet; Mandala for six harps; Motion Detector for cellist Maya Beiser; and Manual Override for the T’ang Quartet.
The latter two pieces, along with a further two of Talbot’s, were chosen by The Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor for his 2008 work Entity with Random Dance, of which there have been over 85 performances worldwide. Talbot and McGregor had collaborated previously on Chroma for The Royal Ballet, which garnered the South Bank Show Award for Dance and an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production, and has since been staged by several companies internationally; and, in the same year, on Genus for the Paris Opera Ballet, for which Talbot produced an electro-acoustic score in collaboration with LA electronic music producer Deru.
For a third 2008 dance collaboration, with Carolyn Carlson and the Orchestra National de Lille, Talbot wrote the full-length Tide Harmonic, now available on Signum Classics. In 2007 and 2008, Talbot’s The Dying Swan was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Fool’s Paradise and performed by Wheeldon’s company Morphoses at Sadler’s Wells and NY City Center in successive seasons. In February 2011, Wheeldon and Talbot premiered their full-length ballet of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for The Royal Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada, the score for which was the first of its kind to be commissioned by the former company in 20 years.
Talbot’s work for film and television began in 1998 with his theme and score for British comedy series The League of Gentlemen, for which he was awarded the Royal Television Society Award for Best Title Music. In 2005 he scored the feature-length The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, as well as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy directed by Garth Jennings, with whom he subsequently worked on the 2008 film Son of Rambow. Other recent film scores include Penelope, Franklyn and Is Anybody There?, and during 2010-11, Talbot both scored and developed song arrangements with the young musicians in the recently released British independent film Hunky Dory.
Commissions from the British Film Institute, for silent films The Lodger (1999), premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, and The Dying Swan (2001) have been widely performed and adapted to other purposes.
As an arranger, Talbot has worked with numerous contemporary pop musicians, including Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Air, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy, Travis, and Ute Lemper, and with record producer Nigel Godrich. Talbot himself acted as producer as well as arranger on the XL Recordings album Aluminium, a limited-edition collection of songs by The White Stripes, arranged by Talbot for chamber orchestra.
GENE SCHEER (Librettist)
Gene Scheer’s work is noted for its scope and versatility, and his music and lyrics have gained enthusiastic admirers among a broad audience. Mr. Scheer has collaborated with the composer Jake Heggie on a number of different projects, including the critically acclaimed 2010 Dallas Opera world premiere, Moby-Dick, starring Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab; Three Decembers (Houston Grand Opera), which starred Frederica von Stade; and the lyric drama To Hell and Back (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), which featured Patti Lupone. Other works by Scheer and Heggie include a number of song cycles as well as For a Look or a Touch, a 45-minute lyric drama written for baritone, actor, and chamber ensemble.
Mr. Scheer worked as librettist with Tobias Picker on An American Tragedy, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Their first opera, Thérèse Raquin, written for the Dallas Opera in 2001, was subsequently performed in Montreal (in a French translation), in San Diego, and at the Linbury Theater in Covent Garden in London. The recording was cited by Opera News as one of the ten best recordings of 2002.
Other recent collaborations include the lyrics for Wynton Marsalis’s It Never Goes Away, featured in Mr. Marsalis’s work Congo Square. With the composer Steven Stucky, Mr. Scheer wrote the oratorio August 4, 1964. The work was premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008 and was recently performed again by the orchestra, with Jaap van Zweden conducting, at Carnegie Hall during the inaugural “Spring for Music” festival.
Also a composer in his own right, Mr. Scheer has written a number of songs for singers such as Renée Fleming, Sylvia McNair, Stephanie Blythe, Jennifer Larmore, Denyce Graves, and Nathan Gunn. The distinguished documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, prominently featured Mr. Scheer’s song “American Anthem” (as sung by Norah Jones) in his Emmy Award-winning World War II documentary for PBS, “The War”.
In recent seasons, a number of new chamber works with music by Jake Heggie and lyrics by Mr. Scheer have taken centerstage. These works include a piece, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, and a lyric drama for Seattle’s “Music of Remembrance” about Krystyna Zywulska, an Auschwitz survivor, and the song cycle, A Question of Light, commissioned by the Dallas Opera in partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art. In February 2012, the Alexander Quartet and Joyce DiDonato premiered Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. This new work by Heggie and Scheer, is based on the passionate life of French sculptor Camille Claudel.
Scheer is currently at work with composer Jennifer Higdon on an operatic adaptation of the National Book Award winning novel Cold Mountain for the Santa Fe Opera.
Photo: Composer Joby Talbot