Everest at the Barbican | Opera Review

An opera dramatising the 1996 Everest Disaster has had its UK premiere at The Barbican in London. Writer, mountaineer and former classical singer Kate Armstrong went along to see how Joby Talbot’s adaptation handled this oft-told tale of mountaineering tragedy.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra arrayed in black across the full stage; the diminutive white-clad figure of the conductor, Nicole Paiement; grey, stepped boxes forming the summit ridge; isolated figures in outdoor clothing; a sound of radio static, then of a moaning, whistling wind – and over, behind and around it all, the contour map of Everest and its surrounding peaks projected onto the back wall. The West Ridge. The South Col. The North Col. The Hillary Step.

Photo: Mark Allan / BBC

This is the opening of Joby Talbot’s opera Everest, based on the ‘96 disaster. The production premiered in the US in 2015, and has now reached the UK in a semi-staged production at the Barbican on 23 June.

It re-tells one of Everest’s most infamous stories – how, on 10/11 May 1996, eight climbers died high on the mountain when a storm hit during their descent. The details have been re-told and debated through at least four books, as well as six films and documentaries. An opera, though, can do something different – focusing not on the facts of the tragedy, but on conveying an emotional essence, through the medium of voice, an orchestra’s full range of colour and rhythm, and, here, a haunting and precise chorus of ‘Voices of the Dead’ – performed to perfection by the BBC Singers.

Talbot and his librettist, Gene Scheer, focus on the stories of three climbers: Rob Hall (sung by Andrew Bidlack), Doug Hansen (Craig Verm), and Beck Weathers (Daniel Okulitch). It flashes on elation at the summit and desperation on the descent, before reaching its emotional core in the much-publicised satellite phone call between Hall, dying on the South Summit, and his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold (Siân Griffiths), back in New Zealand. Further bringing out the dynamic of those left at home, Weathers’ daughter Meg (a luminously innocent Matilda McDonald) appears to him in hallucinations. There are also brief, anguished cameos from Jimmy Holliday as Guy Cotter, manning the radio from base camp, and Charles Gibbs, as Mike Groom gathering the frost-bitten Weathers into his arms in the final moments.  

Photo: Mark Allan / BBC

Photo: Mark Allan / BBC

This telling was far-removed from the media's simplistic mountaineering narratives of heroism or hubris. The rich tenor of Andrew Bidlack (Hall) soared into spellbinding elation at the mountain’s beauty as the summit panorama spooled across the backdrop, before descending into panic at the missing oxygen, and desperate loneliness as he suffers alone. Arnold’s own ascent with Hall the previous year got airspace – she was not, Siân Griffiths sang movingly as she cradled her baby bump, merely like ‘poor Ruth Mallory’ waiting for letters at home. Okulitch (a folksy American-accented Weathers) cited escaping depression as a reason to climb while Verm (Hansen) is given the least chance to express emotional range – he ‘just wants the pain of wanting this so much to go away forever.’

Behind the shifting sentiments the orchestra shimmered, whistled and growled – a constant presence of wind and cracking ice. Brass and percussion heralded the storm’s true arrival. But it was the chorus of the dead that caught the attention most – whispering rhythmically from behind the orchestra from the opening seconds, describing the feeling of ‘letting go into death’ and counting down the time and the remaining oxygen until, in the final moments, Hall and Hansen were absorbed into that chorus and the backdrop filled with the names of all the Everest dead. 

Photo: Mark Allan / BBC

To a mountaineer’s eye this production had a number of distractions – trekking poles rather than ice axes; clothing better suited to a damp day in the Lake District than the Death Zone; a backdrop showing spindrift through sunshine to depict a deadly storm. There’s also something incongruous about deep-chested singing in a setting where the core issue is lack of oxygen and inability to breathe. But these were ultimately irrelevancies in a deeply affecting performance.

In 2023 Everest has recorded one of its deadliest seasons – and though this interpretation can’t provide answers to the eternal questions of mountaineering that these tragedies raise, it does take seriously why people attempt the climb, the stakes, and the effects on those left behind – conveying them with the deep, multi-sensory power that only opera can.


This performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 8 July as part of Opera on 3 and will be available for the following 30 days via BBC Sounds.