How much should an audience member prepare for a performance? Some of my best memories come from the surprises, shows I stumbled into blindly only to be completely blown away. But most of the time, concerts are more fun when you already know the music. It’s no fun to see a David Mamet play without some idea of what you are in for. Anyone who attends The Marriage of Figaro, as I once did, without knowing that the song made famous by Bugs Bunny is actually in The Barber of Seville will be sorely disappointed. In theory, I like to be prepared, but I don’t always find the time for research ahead of time.
My initial preparation for Tosca didn’t extend beyond reading the booklet between taking my seat and the curtain rising on opening night. It was a comfort that in the booklet, General Director Aidan Lang characterised Tosca as an opera so accessible one didn’t require any preparation to enjoy it.
As part of my dedication of the entire weekend to opera, I had a ticket to the pre-performance lecture on Sunday. Unlike the post-performance Talk Back, tickets are required for the lecture ($7). Paying money to attend a lecture before a performance feels like the cultural equivalent of eating your vegetables before dessert. But you know what? It was so worth it.
Beginning 90 minutes before curtain in an auditorium on the lower level of McCaw Hall, Seattle Opera Director of Education Sue Elliott gives an educational and entertaining preview of the opera. The talk I attended had the click-worthy title “Ten Reasons that Tosca is the Perfect Opera.” It opened with a video of a tractor square dance competition (yes, it is what it sounds like – people driving antique tractors in square dance patterns). Her basic message supported my impression that Tosca is all that and a bag of chips.
Opera aficionados can be as obsessive over detail as heavy metal fans, so it is no small feat that Elliott managed to keep her talk interesting and comprehensible for all levels of opera experience. After using tractor-dancers to illustrate that “Virtuosity comes in many forms,” Elliott launched into a defence of much-maligned Puccini. (I was surprised to discover Puccini is the Top 40 of opera. But I guess Seattle is a Wagner town. Bleh.)
From there she proclaims Tosca has the best opening in the canon, “Five chords of throat-grabbing doom.” Language like that will pull in the underground masses for sure. Using a wide variety of images and sound recordings, Elliott moved seamlessly between high-brow and low in her explanations. Even complete newbies could follow her graphic illustrations of chord progressions and their emotional impact. Meanwhile, even opera afficionados felt at home with square dance metaphors (actually, a show of hands revealed a surprising overlap between opera fans and square dancers).
Over the course of the hour, we learned about the historical backdrop of the story, complete with photographs of the actual buildings in Rome depicted in the opera (“Specificity” is one of the 10 reasons Tosca rocks); the history of the opera itself and the men who created it; unique aspects of the music (including the explanation for what I had interpreted as the ‘cinematic’ feeling of the score) and more.
For evening performances, attending the lecture would interfere with most dinner plans. Half an hour between the end of the lecture and curtain is plenty of time to get a drink and find seats, but not really enough time to eat. That might be why I overheard some people at the lecture discussing their plans to attend the opera the following weekend. (I also overheard a group of teenagers seated near me who were attending the lecture in order to decide whether to buy tickets for the performance.)
I can also see the line of thinking that tickets plus dinner plus parking is already enough to spend on a night out. So I can see why attending a pre-performance lecture wouldn’t be an integral part of the opera experience. But I was surprised how much I enjoyed the insights from the lecture, and it definitely influenced the way that I listened to the performance. I would recommend everyone try it at least once.