Opera often confronts the extremes of the human experience. Whether it’s a clown murdering his wife in a jealous rage in “Pagliacci” or 16 nuns guillotined during the French Revolution in “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” opera doesn’t shy away from gut-wrenching situations.
So the real-life tragedy that took place on Mount Everest in May 1996, when eight climbers died making their descent in the middle of a raging blizzard, is perfect fodder for an art form that can depict catastrophe like no other.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “Everest” by composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer for four performances beginning Nov. 11 at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
The Lyric is only the second company to stage “Everest.” When announcing the Lyric’s season earlier this year, Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO, described “Everest” as the musical equivalent of an IMAX film.
“The orchestra will be so big that it won’t fit in the pit,” she said then. “It has colors to re-create the Himalayas and the climb. … You get a sense of the immensity.”
Leonard Foglia, who directed the opera’s premiere in Dallas in 2015, is also directing the Lyric’s production. While not as daunting as climbing the real Mount Everest, bringing the tragic story to life in the theater posed is own challenges. But Foglia is used to staging unstageable epics: he previously directed the premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick.”
“You can’t exactly put Mount Everest on stage, can you?” Foglia said. “Just as in ‘Moby Dick,’ I knew I couldn’t put the ocean and the Pequod on stage. I realized very quickly that we’re not going to concern ourselves with the physical landscape of Mount Everest because this is really the landscape of the mind, and a mind that is melting.”
“Melting” is an intriguing word to use, given that the action of the story takes place in sub-zero weather, but Foglia means it almost literally.
“It’s interesting, when they get up to these high levels, the effects of the high altitude cause people to lose control of their minds and lose control over their bodies,” he said. “They actually say they start feeling warmer as they sort of drift away. Although it is a cold place, to say the least.”
Foglia says he is relying heavily for storytelling through film and projections, which he describes as emotional rather than realistic, and a musical score he calls lyrical rather than dissonant.
“I don’t do dissonant,” he said.
Eight people died in the 1996 Everest expedition, which was also the subject of the best-selling book “Into Thin Air.” The opera focuses on four main characters: the guide and leader of the expedition, Rob Hall; Jan Arnold, Hall’s wife, also an experienced mountain climber, although she didn’t join Hall on the 1996 expedition because she was pregnant at the time; Doug Hansen, a postal worker who sold T-shirts to raise the $75,000 to make the expedition; and Beck Weathers, who barely survived the experience.
“Beck Weathers actually wrote a book called ‘Left for Dead,’ ” Foglia said. “Coming down the mountain with a storm surging, nobody had the energy to even reach down and help him. He lost a hand, he lost his nose, parts of his face were gone, but somehow he ended up surviving and made it back on his own in the storm. He was greatly disfigured. He’s an extraordinary person.”
Certainly it’s an incredible story, but is there a greater meaning to the opera? Is it about something more than the Everest expedition itself?
“A big issue in this opera is how difficult it is to simply take a step at those heights,” Foglia said. “Sometimes 20 feet can take two hours.
“Very early in the opera Gene (Scheer) writes, ‘How many steps will you take in your life? How many breaths will you take in your life?’ We think we have an unlimited number of steps. We think we have an unlimited amount of breaths. Are you going to take account of every step you take and make sure it’s meaningful and has some sort of purpose? To me, that’s what the opera is about.”
7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 15 and 17 and 2 p.m. Nov. 19. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $45.50-$185.50. 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org.
Valery Gergiev and the Stradivarius Ensemble
In addition to the Everest expedition, another monumental event is taking place this week at the Kauffman Center. The Harriman-Jewell Series will present the Stradivarius Ensemble conducted by Valery Gergiev on Tuesday, Nov. 7. The chamber orchestra, composed of members of the fabled Mariinsky Orchestra, will perform music by Edvard Grieg, Richard Strauss, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
What makes this concert extra special are the two piano soloists who are joining the orchestra for Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos: Behzod Abduraimov and Stanislav Ioudenitch. Both are local and international stars. Ioudenitch won the gold medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and Abduraimov won the 2009 London International Piano Competition. Ioudenitch also founded Park University’s International Center for Music, where Abduraimov is artist-in-residence.
In 2013, while Gergiev was in the United States conducting the Metropolitan Opera, he invited Abduraimov, to a party he was throwing in New York. At the party, which included luminaries such as Anna Netrebko, Gergiev asked Abduraimov to play. Gergiev was blown away, and a personal and professional friendship was born. Abduraimov estimates that he has since performed 40 or 50 times with Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra in tours around the world.
Mozart’s Two Piano Concerto is rarely performed in concert because, well, it takes two extremely good pianists. It’s one of Mozart’s most hauntingly beautiful works and will be the perfect complement to Grieg’s sprightly neo-Baroque Holberg Suite, Strauss’ lush Metamorphosen and Tchaikovsky’s tuneful and bittersweet Serenade for Strings.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 7. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $30-$85. 816-415-5025 or hjseries.org.
Harlem String Quartet
When the Harlem String Quartet gives a recital, it’s like no other. The group is one of the finest quartets in the country, so the classical repertoire is its lifeblood. But the Harlem Quartet always expands the notion of what constitutes a chamber music concert. When it performs at Yardley Hall, for example, the group promises to cha-cha-cha with the best of them.
“The Cuban theme for this program will be unlike anything they’ve performed before,” said Emily Behrmann, general manager for the Johnson County Community College Performing Arts Series. “We’re especially happy to be one of the venues where pianist Aldo López-Gavilán will join the quartet, which was founded by his brother and violinist, Ilmar (Gavilán). We’re grateful they’re sharing this special moment with us.”
8 p.m. Nov. 10. Yardley Hall, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. $14-$39. 913-469-4445 or jccc.edu/theseries.
Heartland Men’s Chorus
The Heartland Men’s Chorus is going big for its first-ever fall concert. The spacious United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood is the venue for the choral ensemble’s Nov. 10 concert. The chorus will sing a bounteous selection of HMC’s greatest hits under what is billed as the world’s largest stained glass window.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 10. United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, 13720 Roe Ave., Leawood. $5-$20. 816-931-3338 or hmckc.org.
Musica Vocale, conducted by the estimable Arnold Epley, will perform Sunday, Nov. 5, at St. John’s United Methodist Church. The program, “The Blue Bird and the Deer’s Cry,” will feature part songs from the Renaissance to the 21st century. A number of composers will be highlighted, including Claudio Monteverdi, Charles Stanford, Francis Poulenc and Arvo Pärt. That’s right, a Pärt part song.
3 p.m. Nov. 5. St. John’s United Methodist Church, 6900 Ward Parkway. $10-$15. Tickets available at the door or at musicavocale.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/kcartsbeat.