Opera gets animated on film in ‘Everest’

Opera Parallèle debuts ‘graphic novel opera’ about 1996 climbing tragedy

In their years working together at Opera Parallèle, conductor Nicole Paiement and director Brian Staufenbiel have gained a reputation for innovative live productions of new and unusual works. Now they’re back on the forefront with “Everest,” a dramatic opera presented in a new kind of hybrid production they describe as “graphic novel opera.”

Set for streamed release on July 16, it’s an impressive step forward for the San Francisco-based company — one that Staufenbiel and Paiement, who are husband and wife, hope will attract a new generation of opera lovers.

“Everest,” by British composer Joby Talbot and American librettist Gene Scheer, tells the story of the fateful 1996 Mount Everest expedition that claimed the lives of eight climbers. The opera received its world premiere in 2015 in a fully staged production at Dallas Opera, with Paiement conducting.

The “Everest” that makes its debut this week is a sleekly digitized production – a unique hybrid matching the power of opera with big-screen visuals and the vivid imagination of the graphic novel genre.

“I’ve always been fascinated with pulling together different genres for storytelling in opera,” Staufenbiel, Parallèle’s creative director, explained in a recent interview. “In 2013, we were exploring the idea of using graphic novel images in our opera workshops. We didn’t have the technology just yet, but during the pandemic, we thought this would be the perfect time to explore something we’d been wanting to do for a while, this merger of the graphic novel with opera.”

Directed by Staufenbiel, the 70-minute production features singers Sasha Cooke and Kevin Burdette, reprising their roles from the original Dallas production, along with Nathan Granner and Hadleigh Adams. Each singer’s voice is incorporated in a digital soundtrack conducted by Paiement.

Visuals, designed in graphic novel style by illustrator Mark Simmons and Parallèle’s director of photography, David Murakami, takes the audience high into the Himalayas and follows the singers with “motion capture” technology that animates their performances, showing the heightened emotions playing across each artist’s face.

The effect is powerful, especially in an opera like “Everest,” which tells the same story recounted by Jon Krakauer in his best-selling non-fiction book, “Into Thin Air.” The new technology lends the story a deeper dimension, notes Staufenbiel.

“You see the eyes, the mouths, of the singers,” he said, “with the motion capture controlling the image itself, as if the illustration is coming to life. You feel their joy, their pain, all of the emotions this amazing opera brings to life.”

Brian Staufebiel, left, and Hadleigh Adams film “Everest.” (Courtesy Daniel Harvey)

Brian Staufebiel, left, and Hadleigh Adams film “Everest.” (Courtesy Daniel Harvey)

Although Paiement, who is Parallèle’s general and artistic director, was on intimate terms with the score, she said that watching the finished product was almost overwhelming.

“It’s a very powerful, intimate way of looking at the operatic voice,” said the conductor. “I was very moved to see — just by the eyes, the face — what the singers were feeling. To have this big story told in such an intimate way is very moving.”

Staufenbiel notes that the graphic novel process allowed him to make directorial choices that wouldn’t be possible onstage. “In an opera like ‘Everest,’ the melding of these two art forms allows us to move very quickly from close-ups to seeing the whole vista from the top of Mount Everest,” he said. “That’s a powerful tool; in the theater, it’s hard to make those instant leaps.”

Both Paiement and Staufenbiel think the success of this new hybrid opera has future implications. For fans of graphic novels, a production such as “Everest” could offer a way to get acquainted with opera.

“It’s one of the reasons we’re doing this,” said Staufenbiel, “to usher in audiences who are new to the sound of opera, to experience the beauty and power of the singing voice that we’re all in love with.”

Paiement agrees. “It wouldn’t replace the other kinds of operas we love to do, of course,” she said. “But we think of it as kind of a new genre, the way new genres of opera developed in other centuries. It has to be a special type of storytelling. It’s not every opera and right now we’re trying to identify what kinds of operas we can do with this. We’ll see where it goes, but we definitely had a great time creating and working on this one.”

“Everest,” an Opera Parallèle presentation, streams July 16-Jan. 16; tickets are $20. Go to thedallasopera.TV.

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