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Review: EVEREST at Lyric Opera Of Kansas City

"Everest," from the Kansas City Lyric Opera playing at the Kauffman Center, is visually stunning, emotionally draining, and musically dissonant. The one act opera is difficult to neatly pigeonhole.

"Everest" retells a string of true 1996 fatal disasters on the world's highest peak. Fifteen individuals died. The summit of Mt. Everest rises 29,029 feet about sea level. Enough oxygen to sustain human life does not naturally live at that altitude. Airline pilots are required to wear oxygen masks above 14,000 ft.

The mountain has stood for a very long time, but not until 1953 did the first westerner, a New Zealander named Edmund Hillary, summit the mountain with the assistance of a Nepalese mountaineer called Tenzing Norgay. Since then, improvements in equipment plus the establishment of set routes to the summit have made it possible for ordinary people in relatively good shape and with enough money to achieve the top of the world on Everest.

This short opera points us to the dangers that exist even with modern commercial tour availability. The mountain can (and often does) win a struggle with well-heeled adventurers attempting to reach the summit. The cost of losing to the adventurers can be limbs or even life itself.

Our story focuses on six characters. They are a New Zealander tour operator Rob Hall (Andrew Bidlack) and climbers Dr. Beck Weathers (Michael Mayes) and Doug Hansen (Craig Verm). Sarah Larsen plays Rob Halls' pregnant wife available to him via sat-phone. Claire Emerson Rupp plays Weather's young daughter Meg. Meg appears to her father in a delusional dream state. Dr. Beck Weathers survived barely. He lost both hands and part of his face to frostbite. Rob Hall and Doug Hansen died on the mountain.

The sixth character is the mountain itself. The mountain (played by a fine operatic chorus) is all dressed in white and positioned around the set. They are always there. They will always be there.

The set is composed of about seventy equally sized white blocks positioned at angles. Some are square. Some are askew. None sit on the stage floor. The block pile is arranged on a superstructure that fills the entire proscenium arch. Blocks can live up to 30 feet above the stage floor. The blocks are practical. The actors and chorus can appear anywhere on them and climb or rope from block to block.

The blocks also serve as small screens upon which dozens of effective and ever changing projections are thrown from various positions. The score offers more than just the orchestral music. It also suggests the movement of the ice and the sound of the wind. The choral works are ethereal.

The rest of the opera is sung in a style called "Récitatif," a style of musical declamation that hovers between song and ordinary speech, particularly used for dialogic and narrative interludes during operas and oratories. The voices are glorious, but don't expect to leave the theatre able to sing any of the tunes.

The overall effect is staggering if a little confusing. The style of advancing the narrative makes understanding challenging. Kauffman Center audiences will benefit from the small screens in front of each seat that ordinarily share translations of operas in other languages. In this case, the language is English, but the screens still help.

The score is dissonant. I am reminded, in some ways, of a 1965 piece by Leonard Bernstein called the "Chichester Psalms." There are similar atonal aspects to "The Psalms," but even they have passages that are much more legato than anything you will hear in this piece by composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the great work by conductor Nicole Paiement, scenic designer Robert Brill, and projection designer Elaine McCarthy. Director Leonard Foglia stitches all these disparate elements together in a way that makes this 75-minute piece more than worth seeing and an outstanding example of operatic stagecraft.

"Everest" continues at the Kauffman on November 15,17, and 19. Tickets are available at the Lyric Opera website or by telephone at 816-471-7344.

Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Cory Weaver.

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