Polar Expedition Opera Hits the High Notes


By Nick Mott
Spring 2011

The worlds of opera and polar ice sheets rarely intersect. On April 8th, however, the two fields found a rare point of convergence during the KU School of Music’s Helianthus Chamber Operas.

Lisa Neher’s “White Horizon,” one of four operas performed, followed the true story of Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, and his attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. Nansen knew that during his journey into the uncharted, icy seas, he would encounter potentially hull-crushing pack ice. In order to combat the deadly ice, he constructed a ship, the Fram, that he thought could withstand the power of the freezing ice. His ship, he though, would freeze into the ice and be carried along by the ice drift until he reached the North Pole. The Pole, he thought, was pure ice. There was no land lying beneath.

Nansen stocked his ship with provisions for five years, including a windmill, a printing press and a library. The explorer, though, was in for a surprise. At a certain point, his expedition stopped going according to plan, and he was forced to make adjustments to his initial preparations. Though Nansen was eventually forced to turn back and never reached the North Pole, he was a pioneer in the field of polar science and expedition and made it farther north than had anyone before him.

Lisa Neher, the production’s composer, said that she was attracted to the story by Nansen’s sheer passion. “I know a lot of passionate people in life who love what they do, but I don’t think very many of us are called on to put yourself on the line that much,” she said.

CReSIS staff and students gave a short presentation before the show began and presented a slideshow during intermission to show modern advances in polar science. Neher said that the show was also able to utilize fabulous arctic photographs to set a background for the performance.

“I think it really enriched their experience,” she said. “Because opera is inherently interdisciplinary, it made sense to reach out to other departments on campus that could inform these productions.”

Neher said that the performance had a fantastic turnout and lots of enthusiastic audience members. “I don’t know of many other colleges that are doing something like this where they’re really working on producing new operas, not only writing them but getting them the chance to get performed and get out there,” she said.


Photo 1: Students reenact Fridtjof Nansen's legendary expedition in Lisa Neher's "White Horizon."