A gruesome slice of pioneer history brought to the stage

As a kid, Tom Baker and his family took car trips from California to Idaho, heading through the Sierra Nevadas via the Donner Pass—and on every trip Baker’s father would tell the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, trapped in the mountains during the brutal winter of 1846-47 and forced, so the legend goes, to resort to cannibalism to survive. Now the Seattle composer is turning the gruesome tale he grew up with into an opera. Hunger draws on poetry from Ruth Whitman’s 1974 book Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey, the imagined journals of the clan matriarch. To be performed against a backdrop of projected photos, Baker’s score, for soprano Maria Mannisto and his own four-man Tom Baker Ensemble, combines strains of hymns and folksongs with extended instrumental techniques: Bending pitches woozily with a slide at the very top of his guitar’s range, Baker evokes the hallucinations of hunger as Jesse Canterbury’s breathy clarinet recreates the emptiness of a howling wind. Even before the Donners got to the fatal Pass, of course, the journey was no picnic. As the party crosses the Utah desert, Brian Cobb imitates the slow wood-on-wood grinding of wagon wheels by crunching his bow against the strings of his bass, an effect just as grippingly bleak as Whitman’s text: “Hair, clothing, wagons covered with white dust. . . in this desert of salt.” Good Shepherd Chapel, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., 800-838-3006, $5-$15. 8 p.m. Fri., March 14-Sat., March 15. GAVIN BORCHERT

Fri., March 14, 8 p.m.; Sat., March 15, 8 p.m., 2008

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