In fairness the singing was led by Robert McClung Community Programmes Manager for Seattle Opera and was with around another fifty people. Not that Seattle Central Library is really one of those ‘shhh’ libraries anyway. When I worked as Arts Policy Officer at North Yorkshire County Council the Libraries and Arts Department ran a great ‘No shhh-ing at this library’ campaign (it was in the days, really not so long ago, when there was money being spent on promoting libraries – given the horrific cuts English libraries have been facing more recently, this work and its accompanying refit programme seem hard to imagine). I have had a thirst for encouraging some noise ever since…
Seattle Central Library is a one of those magnificent public buildings we can rejoice in. When I first visited Seattle two years ago my way to stay for a longer period was to bring some work with me. People kept telling me, that rather than using the small flat we were renting as an office space, to go to the Library. I thought this a boring option until I got there – what an inspiring place. It opened in 2004, and was primarily designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus of architecture firm OMA. The strongest memory of my first vist was the giggle of children enjoying a secret corridor with its shiny red and padded walls. It seemed magical to them – and to me. As well as excited people there are nearly 1.5 million books and artefacts and 400 public access computers around the place.
Anyway, this dramatic building also includes a great auditorium where last week Seattle Opera presented a preview lecture on Verdi’s Rigoletto, of which they have a production this season. The talk was a part of a series which sees the company introduce a piece from their current season each month. Each talks takes place in many of the branch libraries as well as central library – a great idea. A show of hands let us know about about a third of the audience were new to Rigoletto, but Robert reassured the others there would be plenty of interest for them too. A good few years ago I decided to up the numbers of opera I was seeing – and had a great year that included productions in opera houses in Europe, and I have continued to attend. It is usually the more contemporary ones that leave the strongest memories though, some others merging – I thought I had seen Rigoletto, but was I confusing it with another opera of a similar period? Robert started with a spoiler “the woman dies at the end” then admitted “but you expected that, yeah?” hinting at some similarity within story lines.
It was a very enjoyable talk, Robert’s passion for opera was clear. He had great fun with an audience ‘guess the emotion linked to the melodramatic gesture’ game and gushed at the tenderness and tragedy within Rigoletto. He spoke with knowledge, and highlighted some wonderful moments, motifs and repetitions in the musical phrasing to help us sink in to the atmosphere and depth of the story. He helped us to notice the value of the C note, core within the repeated phrasing of the curse right through to the clock striking. He contextualised the developments within opera and Verdi’s techniques, particularly the new approach to the baritone being the character the audience develop the most sympathy for. Whilst we recognise Rigoletto’s many faults we still build great compassion towards him.
It seems mean to criticise the event; free, at a public library, well attended, informative, entertaining and educative. However I did leave really quite disappointed. It was a great hour on Rigoletto – but, other than a half sentence saying the Seattle Opera’s production was set in 1930’s facisist Italy and some cast information, nothing rooted it in this live performance being built just down the road. For me, the joy of a company talk is that there are artists from directors and set designers to players and performers grappling with this actual task of taking what exists of an opera and creating an event. I wanted to hear something of this process, of what decisions were being made, what dilemmas arising, what considerations being taken in creating a production. It didn’t have to be much – an hour is a short slot. But a few video clips/interviews with some key staff back at base, easily created with simple technology, would have made all the difference. I am at the front of the queue in the ‘education and outreach work shouldn’t be marketing’ argument – but I left this talk no more wanting to book a ticket than I went in. I should have been tempted into the unique production, tantalised with the ideas being worked up, even perhaps provoked by some of the decisions. Instead it was a talk that could have taken place anywhere and at any time. It was an excellent talk on Rigoletto – it was not the advertised event though, “a preview lecture of Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.” Ironically it is only in looking up links for writing this blog post today that I found some trailer and interviews on the company’s website. Strange that there was no mention, or use, of these.
The next round of talks in the libraries from Seattle Opera is on Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul. I am keen to attend as I feel strongly that there is not nearly enough focus on 20th Century and contemporary works generally. It is great to see this within the company’s season. The Central Library talk is on Thursday 20th February at noon.