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The first photo taken by the rescuers on December 22, 1972. The 1972 crash of a chartered plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team has become infamous for the survival methods of some of those onboard: eating the bodies of fellow passengers who had died. Lloyd Burritt, a Vancouver composer, is interested in changing the narrative around that crash.Antonio Caruso

The first thing that comes to mind regarding the crash of Flight 571 in the Andes likely has to do with the method of survival for those who made it. With food and hopes of rescue disappearing, members of a Uruguayan rugby team famously kept themselves alive by eating the flesh of fellow passengers who had died.

Two months after the October, 1972, crash, two of the survivors – Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa – trekked from the glacier 3,650 metres above sea level across the mountains for days to find help.

Because of their incredible, superhuman efforts under treacherous circumstances, 14 other survivors were ultimately airlifted to safety – 72 days after the crash. This was survival against all odds by brave, strategizing – and starving – victims who transformed despair into determination.

But the narrative was quickly hijacked by the sensational reports of how the group had managed to do it – cannibalism.

There is so much more to the story. And now Vancouver composer Lloyd Burritt is telling it, in a new opera.

Miracle Flight 571, which will be sung publicly for the first time this weekend in Vancouver, is adapted from the memoir Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home written by Parrado (with Vince Rause).

"Nando was horrified by the sensationalism of the cannibalism … and so he decided as a rebuttal to write his own book," Burritt says. "So this opera is Nando's opera."

Burritt is a retired high school music teacher who turned to writing opera 15 years ago. His early works include The Dream Healer, based on Timothy Findley's Pilgrim. A few months after The Dream Healer's world premiere in 2008, a friend gave Burritt Parrado's book as a gift. She inscribed it: "The music is in the pages."

Burritt heard it. "It totally grabbed my spirit," he says. He contacted Parrado to obtain the rights.

Burritt, who has just turned 75, has an interest in human-against-nature survival stories. His own mother survived an avalanche on Mount Seymour in 1942 when he was 2. And he is a climber himself, who has climbed to 3,000 metres.

"I've done most of the major mountain ranges [in B.C.] with food and a backpack and a friend and nobody else," he says. "I have a zest of wanting to find myself in nature and alone – and so I can understand some of the severity."

In Miracle Flight 571, Burritt, who composed the music and wrote the libretto, focuses on the heroics displayed by Parrado (now a motivational speaker) as well as Canessa. Parrado's mother and younger sister, both of whom died as a result of the crash, are also principal characters.

The chamber opera will be performed by an a cappella choral group accompanied by piano, horns and sound effects on Sunday, ahead of a world premiere staging about a year from now at the University of Toronto.

The work treats the cannibalism as a mass, in one of the opera's shortest scenes. But the means of survival inevitably becomes a topic of conversation when discussing the project – and Burritt understandably can get his back up when asked about it.

"May I please turn the question around and say, 'What would you do if you were a teenager?' Nando was 22; there were a few alumni that went on this trip. If you were of that age and your plane crashed on the glacier at 12,000 feet, what would you do? The men that did partake survived. The ones that didn't, died. … Roberto … was in pre-med and he said to them, 'Without protein we're goners and it looks like they've abandoned the air search. What are we going to do?' What would you do? That's what I say to most people that ask the question."

Miracle Flight 571 plays the Roy Barnett Recital Hall at the UBC School of Music in Vancouver Sunday at 7:30 p.m.