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Photo of Mount Everest

Tonight we get to experience the UK premiere of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, a tale of bravery and tragedy inspired by real-life events on the roof of the world.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s celebrated ascent of Mount Everest. Since then, thousands of people have been driven to emulate that landmark feat, and an Everest climbing industry has boomed. For very large sums of money, fit and willing amateurs can join commercial expeditions to the top of the world. But with that comes a very real risk to life.

Written in a single, suspenseful act, Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s opera Everest tells the story of a day in 1996 that saw one of the worst disasters in the mountain’s history. Since its world premiere in Dallas in 2015, their tense human drama has enjoyed several runs in North America and Europe, and has garnered glowing reviews.

A narrow window in the spring offers the most favourable conditions to climb Everest, a fact which can lead to dangerous congestion on the slopes. On 10 May 1996 three different expeditions launched attempts from the southern side. An unexpected snowstorm, compounded by human error, led to multiple climbers being stranded away from their tents in freezing winds. By the end of the next day, eight people had died.

To simplify matters, Everest focuses on the fates of three members of one team. Rob Hall is the leader of Adventure Consultants, perhaps the most respected guide on the mountain, and Doug Hansen and Beck Weathers are two of his eight clients.

Talbot’s score conjures the relentlessly inhospitable setting, using a large percussion section to create eerie, elemental effects, complemented by immersive set projections by Elaine J McCarthy. Gaps in the vocal lines imitate gasps for air, and the on-stage chorus plays a prominent role, representing the spirits of dead climbers, who give an ominous commentary as events unfold.

Our story takes place near the summit, where the air is thinnest, an area known as ‘the death zone’. The dangers here are manifold: low oxygen levels can exhaust the body and cause confusion and impaired decision making. No-one can stay so high for long, and it’s beyond the range of a rescue helicopter. Getting down in a timely manner is essential.

But the effects of altitude on each person are unpredictable. As the opera begins, Beck has suffered a loss of vision, and Rob has told him to wait for him to return from the summit. Meanwhile, as Rob reaches the top, Doug is struggling behind, hardly able to continue.

For clients who have given everything to get here, the prospect of having to turn back with their goal almost in reach is agonising. We learn that this fate befell Doug the previous year. Rob has persuaded him to try again, offering a discounted fee to make good the crushing disappointment. But Rob’s planned turn-around time has already passed as Doug struggles on. Desperate to see him succeed, Rob helps him up, delaying further past the safe descending point. The chorus reminds us of the minutes ticking away.

As oxygen tanks empty and the snowstorm arrives, our characters fight for survival – and dream of home. Beck hallucinates that he is at a barbecue, regaling guests with his exploits. He speaks to his daughter, and reveals the depression that drove him to make this trip.

We also see Rob’s wife Jan, who previously accompanied him as the team doctor, but is now in New Zealand, pregnant with their first child. She can speak to him by phone via a radio to base camp, but is powerless to help. As she laments, he ‘might as well be on the moon’.

Everest is an opera with many resonances. Some will find romance in ordinary folk daring to dream of greatness, and struggling together in adversity. Others may think of cautionary tales – Babel, Icarus – and bigger themes of our troubled relationship with the planet. We should also consider that Mount Everest, above all else, is an idea: named after a British surveyor, the days of Empire created a peak to be measured, ranked and conquered. In Nepalese it is called Sagarmāthā, goddess of the sky.

Since the tragic events of 1996, the Everest expedition industry has only continued to grow, and so has its death toll. At the time of writing, 17 people are reported dead or missing from the 2023 climbing season, adding to the mountain’s claim on over 300 souls. The grim truth is that its upper slopes are littered with corpses that cannot be safely retrieved.

Why climb Everest at all, you may wonder? George Mallory famously quipped ‘because it is there’. And there it remains: thrusting into a frozen sky, scoured by whistling winds, coldly indifferent to every aspiration we project upon it.

© Simon Brackenborough


The setting

Everest, May 10–11, 1996. Bad weather has affected this year’s climbing season, and now multiple expeditions are attempting to reach the summit on the same day. A bottleneck of climbers at the notorious Hillary Step has delayed the progress of Rob Hall’s group and he now finds himself near the top of the mountain with his client Doug Hansen, long after the agreed turnaround time has passed. Unbeknown to the two mountaineers, a ferocious storm is brewing below. Meanwhile, further down the mountain, another of Rob’s clients, Beck Weathers, lies unconscious as the storm rages around him.


From the shadows of Mount Everest, the spirits of all those who have died attempting to reach the summit sing to Beck Weathers, who is unconscious on the mountain’s South Col. These ethereal spirits now turn their attention to Rob Hall, the expedition leader and guide, who is just reaching Everest’s highest peak at 2.30pm, 30 minutes past the safe turnaround time. Rob sees his client Doug Hansen a mere 40 feet below.

The scene shifts back to Beck Weathers. In his unconscious, dreamlike state, he hallucinates that he is in his backyard enjoying a Texas barbecue. Beck holds court and begins to describe his experiences on Everest. Suddenly, from the edge of Beck’s consciousness, the voice of his daughter Meg sings to him.

As we see Rob straining to help Doug reach the summit, time stops and Doug sings an aria in which he describes the tormenting deep-seated obsession that has led him to this moment. As Rob takes a picture of Doug, Rob is jarred by the memory of taking pictures of his wife, Jan.

While Rob endeavours to get his client down from the summit of Everest, we see Beck, lying, delirious, on the South Col. Once again, his daughter calls out to him in vain. From the depths of his consciousness, ruminations on his struggle with profound depression slowly merge with the memory of the events that took place on the climb earlier that same day.

Rob is increasingly desperate. He has a disabled client on the top of the mountain as the storm begins raging around them both. Jan, Rob’s wife, is contacted and told of her husband’s life-threatening situation.

Beck, beginning to emerge from his coma, sees the climbers on the South Col huddling together in a frantic attempt to survive the storm. Beck’s internal soliloquy slowly allows him to make sense of what is happening, and to comprehend the cold, hard truth: he is dying.

In a quartet, Doug, Rob, Jan and Beck sing of their plight. As the quartet concludes, we see Rob desperately trying to get Doug to the South Summit, where he hopes they can make it through the night.

Beck has finally woken up to the harsh reality that if he is going to be saved, he will need to do it himself.


© Joby Talbot & Gene Scheer. Reproduced by permission of Chester Music Ltd

Programme and performers

Joby Talbot Everest (UK premiere)

Joby Talbot composer
Gene Scheer librettist

Nicole Paiement conductor
Leonard Foglia director
Kristen Barrett revival director
Stephen Higgins chorus master
Elaine J McCarthy projection designer
David Woolard costume designer
Daniel Okulitch Beck Weathers
Craig Verm Doug Hansen
Siân Griffiths Jan Arnold
Andrew Bidlack Rob Hall
Matilda McDonald Meg Weathers
Jimmy Holliday Guy Cotter
Charles Gibbs Mike Groom

BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Singers


Artist biographies

Co-produced by the Barbican and BBC Symphony Orchestra

Audience in the hall

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