San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
‘Everest’ mixes opera with the graphic novel
S.F.’s Opera Parallèle pushes envelope by presenting ‘Everest’ as video graphic novel
Flurries of snow, accompanied by eerie, swooshing music, stream past a panoramic view dominated by an enormous mountain peak. A spectral chorus intones a few cryptic lines about life and death.
Then, suddenly, a heavily equipped climber emerges into the clear air of the Himalayan mountaintop and sings, brightly and emphatically: “I’m here! It’s Rob Hall . ... Made it!”
So begins “Everest,” the short but hauntingly atmospheric oneact opera by composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer. When the piece had its world premiere in 2015 on stage at the Dallas Opera, it represented a first operatic effort by a composer best known for his work in ballet.
Now it represents a different kind of first: an inventive and artistically nuanced project by San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle to fuse opera, video and comics into a new hybrid genre.
The company’s adaptation of “Everest,” conceived and directed by Brian Staufenbiel and executed by a small team of musicians, illustrators and videographers, goes live Friday, July 16, and will be available to view on the Dallas Opera’s streaming website, thedallasopera.tv, through Jan. 16. It’s an offering that initially seems tricky to describe but turns out to be conceptually straightforward.
Billed as a “graphic novel opera,” the video renders “Everest” in the familiar drawn panels of longform comic books. There’s a recorded musical
track, created with a cast of toptier operatic singers. The characters move on the page but not as freely as they might in a standard animated film — rather, the effect is of reading a printed graphic novel that has somehow come to life.
Staufenbiel and conductor Nicole Paiement, Opera Parallèle’s general artistic director and also his wife, said they’ve been mulling over the possibilities of such a hybrid since 2013.
“We had begun thinking about the aesthetic possibilities of the graphic novel long ago, and considering how we could use it to enhance certain things about opera,” Paiement said in an interview with The Chronicle in the company’s office near Civic Center. “But we left it on the back burner, thinking we’d come back to it one day.”
That day arrived with the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, which left the collaborators with an urge to explore new artistic possibilities and plenty of free time to do it. “Everest,” which depicts the same 1996 mountaineering disaster that was memorably chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s 1997 nonfiction bestseller “Into Thin Air,” was a perfect choice. Paiement had conducted the premiere, and knew the score intimately. The opera runs just over one hour, making it manageable for creators and audiences alike.
Best of all, the pair said, was that the setting — and the opera’s diversions into the interior lives of the characters — seemed ideally suited for a comic book approach.
“The graphic novel format gave us permission to go outside the hall, into a surreal world,” Paiement said. “It expands the possibility of what opera can do.”
Staufenbiel cited the example of a scene in which the consciousness of Rob Hall, the expedition’s doomed guide, flips back and forth between the mountain and his home.
“He’s on top of the mountain taking pictures of one of the other climbers, and suddenly the lens flips and he’s back home in New Zealand taking pictures of his pregnant wife. Then he wakes up and you realize he’s just been in this fantasy world brought on by lack of oxygen,” Staufenbiel explained.
“You can pull that off on the stage, but the quick flip and being completely submerged in a house or top of Everest within a second, with just a page turn — it frees us up to move around and have these extreme locations.”
Opera and animation may turn out to be natural companions, and the pandemic has unleashed comparable flurries of inventiveness here and there. On July 2, the San Jose company Opera Cultura released “Mi Camina,” an animated short based on composer Héctor Armienta’s song cycle about
California farmworkers that’s available to view through Friday, July 16. At Cal State Northridge, a collaboration among the music, film and animation departments produced a combination liveaction and animated production of Puccini’s oneact opera “Gianni Schicchi” that premiered online in May.
But the production by Opera Parallèle — long known in the Bay Area for its inventive approach to new and unusual operas — represents something more ambitious.
Creating the video was a long, multilayered process involving both technology and health and safety strictures. Paiement first partnered with Talbot to create an orchestral track using prerecorded digital samples of the instruments, and then she recorded each of the singers’ parts individually behind glass screens.
“It might have been my favorite COVID collaboration,” said mezzosoprano Sasha Cooke, who sang the role of Rob’s wife, Jan Arnold. “It was very well organized in terms of safety. We were never in the same space together.”
While the vocal tracks were being recorded, director of photography David Murakami filmed each of the performers for “performance capture,” an analog (and lowbudget) version of the sort of CGIbased process used in such Hollywood enterprises as the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Then illustrator Mark Simmons created sheaves of handdrawn pages based on those video recordings.
The result is an animation style that mirrors the expressive gestures of the singers, without ever disrupting the essentially twodimensional drawing style of the graphic novel. That meant the singers had to remain physically immobile, while still being as communicative as possible with their faces — a constraint that suited Cooke perfectly.
“I’m always being told I’m not operatic enough, that I don’t do enough gesticulating or exaggerating things. But in this piece I could be totally authentic,” Cooke said.
In creating the visual elements, Staufenbiel, Murakami and Simmons made sure to pursue possibilities at the juncture of various art forms.
“One of the big challenges and opportunities for this project,” Murakami said, “was how to honor the graphic novelness of it all, but also embrace the fact that it’s a graphic novel — because the audience isn’t sitting there reading, they’re watching.
“Comic books are really interesting as an art form because they allow the audience to experience things nonlinearly. When you turn the page, you see both pages presented to you, and you know if something exciting is going to happen on the second page. That’s in contrast to film and music where things happen in a fixed order. So we played with that by sometimes just giving a little tease of the next panel.”
The animated treatment also gave the creators a chance to play around with verbal text.
“Every project Brian and I have done together always includes the
conversation about whether we’re going to do something fun with supertitles,” Murakami said. “And the answer is always no.
“But supertitles belong to the domain of the graphic novel. So we were finally able to have some fun with them, playing with text floating here and there and fading in and out. It was so cathartic!”
Among other things, the creators hope that a project like this will help demystify opera for those unaccustomed to its conventions and vocal style.
“We want to help people get used to being entertained by that type of voice,” Staufenbiel said. “When people mock operatic singing, they may not get that it actually comes from a deep emotional place. This can create a direct line to that.”
At the moment, the Opera Parallèle team is putting the finishing touches on the company’s upcoming season of live productions. But it plans to return to the world of the graphic novel/opera hybrid that “Everest” has so persuasively laid out.
“We’ve created a shortlist of the pieces we think would work well,” Paiement said. “The criteria are the same: an exciting sound world, a dramatic quality of storytelling, a libretto that’s suitable — and not too long.”