“I’m not actually a huge opera buff,” Joby Talbot told me last week as he gazed out the window of the Winspear Opera House at a congested Woodall Rodgers Freeway on a crisp, sunny morning. Talbot speaks in a droll, quintessentially British manner in which every other sentence trails off into a sort of mumbled sarcastic self-deprecation. But with this statement, he seemed sincere.
“I’ve had some extraordinary, revelatory moments in the opera house over the years, but I’ve had an awful lot more disinterested moments,” he admitted. “I’m not like one of those people who always goes and absolutely loves everything I see. More often than not I’m left a bit cold by it.
“But obviously,” he continued, “it’s the ultimate musical genre because of everything it brings to the table and the scope and the scale of the whole thing. I can hardly imagine that you can really be a composer and at least not harbor some sort of secret desire to write an opera one day.”
If Talbot harbored his own such secret ambitions, they are now becoming a reality. On Friday night, The Dallas Opera is giving Talbot’s first opera, Everest, its world premiere.
TDO commissioned this opera from Talbot after Keith Cerny, the company’s General Director and CEO saw a London performance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a three-act ballet Talbot composed in 2011. “I think he thought that there was something about the way I used music to tell the story that would lend itself very well to opera,” Talbot relayed.
Cerny introduced Talbot to Gene Scheer, a veteran opera librettist who worked with Jake Heggie on Moby-Dick, another opera that was commissioned and premiered by TDO (in 2010). Talbot felt there were two main elements that were key to creating a successful opera: a strong, clear structure, and a good story. As they began working on the project, he and Scheer collaborated extensively on both of these points from the start.
“What goes wrong with so many operas that don’t work so well is that they get lost and just start to ramble on,” Talbot explained. “The ones that work are the ones with really strong structures that are simple and clearly defined. If you’ve got that, you’re in business.”
He continued, “I did think about the history of opera and how it came to be this big kind of huge, saggy, grandiose, art form. [I wanted to] try and avoid some of the pitfalls, you know. I have been to a lot of contemporary opera over the years where things just don’t really work and I’ve thought to myself, ‘Must remember not to do that, must remember not to do that, eek, must avoid that . . . .’ The first thing is to have a good story to tell. If your story is rambling, complicated, or didactically confusing, how on earth do you expect an audience to understand it when its being yelled at you over a symphony orchestra? So when Gene and I were first talking, we decided we were going to go with something very clear cut, with characters that people relate to and find compelling.”
The story they landed on is one Scheer had been mulling over for some time. (“I think he has a lot of ideas for operas sort of swooshing around in the back of his brain,” Talbot said.) Scheer’s idea was to write an opera based on the true story of climbers trapped on Mount Everest during a blizzard in 1996. Many people will remember these events as the subject of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, Into Thin Air. But for this opera, Scheer researched numerous accounts of the event and crafted his own, unique narrative.
Talbot explained why it works: “The first thing you have to ask yourself is ‘Why tell this story with an opera?’ I’ve been to operas where I’ve thought, ‘Why did you tell me this story through singing and orchestral music? You could just as easily have told it to me over a cocktail.’’ But this a big story with big emotions. It has all the operatic things you’d hope for – love, death, hubris, success, failure, redemption – it’s all there in this story of these four people who are stuck on a mountain.”
For Talbot, working with a libretto was a new challenge. “You know,” he told me, “to be honest, when I read Scheer’s words off the page for the first time it was hard to see how I was going to set them to music. But as soon as I actually sat down and started writing music, I realized how good he is at this. The words are more prosaic than poetic, but everything he writes just needs to be sung, wants to be sung. It looks like a text but it behaves like a lyric when you you try to set it to music.”
In the end it took Talbot about a year of daily work to compose this one-act opera, which clocks in at around an hour and fifteen minutes. “I didn’t find it easy,” he said of his first foray into opera composition. “But I don’t think you should find it easy. It’s not meant to be easy. For me, composing is like pushing a boulder up a hill.”
Why push the proverbial boulder up the hill every day? “The reason I ended up doing this is because I realized when I was quite young that I had something I wanted to say,” Talbot explained. “But I didn’t want to say it in words and I didn’t want to draw pictures of it. My only way of communicating it was through music. I’m just trying to write music that I love as much as some of the other music I love by other people. I really love this piece. And I’m excited to share it with people.”
If you want to catch this opera, you’ll need to snag tickets soon. There are only four performances (Jan. 30, Feb. 1, 4 and 7). Although it is capable of standing on its own, TDO is presenting Everest as part of a double bill that also features the final act of Alfredo Catalini’s La Wally, because if you’re going to go to the trouble of building a mountain in an opera house, you might as well make good use of it. Like Everest, La Wally is set on a treacherous snowy mountain (in this case the Alps), and the difficulty of staging an avalanche scene is one of the reasons opera companies rarely produce it. If you’ve never seen La Wally, you’re not alone. “I don’t know it myself,” Talbot confessed, “I suppose I’ll hear it on opening night.
“It’ll be interesting,” Talbot told me. “The audience will see Catalini’s take on perilous mountaineering situations and then when they come back after intermission, we’ll just kind of blow their heads off. We just did a run-through with the orchestra yesterday and it was like, ‘whoa.’ This is going to be insane.”