29 May 2017

NZ mountaineer inspires opera: a ‘microcosm of man’s struggle’

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 29 May 2017

A fallen New Zealand mountaineer has provided inspiration for an opera by British composer Joby Talbot. 

Composer Joby Tabolt

Composer Joby Tabolt Photo: Johan Persson

Everest tells the tragic story of Rob Hall who died on the mountain in 1996 in a blizzard that claimed the lives of eight mountaineers. 

Dallas Opera commissioned and premiered the opera two years ago and it continues to tour in the US.

A performance of Everest has now been recorded and Talbot expects that to be released soon.

Meanwhile, Talbot’s choral work, Path of Miracles, which had its world premiere halted by the 2005 London Bombings, is being performed by Auckland choir Viva Voce this Queen’s Birthday weekend.

Talbot is a successful composer of music for ballet, choir and film, including A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Talbot told Upbeat that Everest was his first opera.

“I don’t really understand this urge to climb to the highest places in the world but then again, my piece doesn’t set out to criticise that in any way,” he says.

“It just explores the motivations behind the people who did it and the fascinating and very sad story of what happened that day.”

He says he was very conscious when writing the opera of not making capital out of other people’s misfortune.

“We’ve tried to make something that is really sort of a healing piece - it’s really about more than what happened that day.”

An opera requires a story that has the “emotional weight” to warrant being told in the form, he says.

And Talbot says Everest covers the big themes: heroism, hubris, love, loss, dreams, visions and disillusion and describes it as a “microcosm of man’s struggle”.

Talbot says he used a transcript of Rob Hall’s last conversation with his wife, Jan Arnold, and set the words to music.

“It’s an interesting conversation because you’ve got two people who…have to say goodbye to each other but neither one of them wants to admit to the other or maybe to their themselves that they’re saying goodbye,” he says.

“And also of course the whole conversation is on an open channel to everybody who is on the mountain. They just literally put a satellite phone to a radio and managed to patch them through.”

The entire opera distils down to that one conversation, he says.

“There’s a thudding heartbeat in the background and there’s a moment of stillness as they have this conversation and then the music sort of takes Rob away and then we are left with Jan.”

Talbot describes the mountain as having a “monstrous kind of presence musically”, as if its stomach is grumbling.

“It’s very sort of rumbly, scary, weird, disembodied music,” he says.

He says after Jan and Rob say goodbye, the opera takes a more meditative and healing turn.

“It takes the audience up and off and shows you something that is bigger than just our little concern, some kind of, I don’t know, infinite spiritual vision or something.”