Il Trovatore has a gorgeous set.
Il Trovatore has a gorgeous set. Jacob Lucas/Seattle Opera

You have to be on your best behavior at the opera. It's not like seeing a show at the Paramount or the 5th Avenue, when you can often waltz in late, guided by an usher with a little flashlight. If you're a moment late to the opera, you often can't be let in. Earlier this year, I was a few moments late to the start of a performance, and thankfully, miraculously, I did get let in, without about a dozen other stragglers, after we waited for about ten minutes in a vestibule with whispering ushers.

For someone like me who's used to musical theater—which is basically a hammy, mugging free-for-all onstage and off—opera's seriousness strikes a chord of fear. I certainly don't want to mess up the delicate artistry. The fact that none of the performers wear microphones and you can still hear their voices throughout McCaw Hall blows my mind every time.

Anyway, there I was at Il Trovatore, an extremely satisfying*, hard-to-sing opera by Verdi. My date and I got into our seats earlier than we needed to be, just to be safe. There was a scrim down in front of the stage, with a gigantic ring of fire (maybe an eclipse?) as tall as the stage itself. When the scrim lifted it revealed a gorgeous built environment the likes of which Seattle Opera has not been doing much of lately. Most of the recent productions, in terms of scenery, have relied on projections. Not Il Trovatore. Thank god. I love looking at finely made, intricately built environments and thinking: How did they make that?

Anyway, after the first scene, the scrim came back down, and predictably, everyone who'd been holding in a cough got to let it out. A gentle wave of coughs rippled through the house. The scrim stayed down. And then another wave of coughs, these ones more intense, rippled through the house—it's flu season after all. Or maybe these were fake coughs, to make fun of all the coughers? Then there was a different noise, more like throat-clearing, in a "Let's get this next scene going" sort of way. The scrim stayed down. Then came a ripple of laughter at all the coughing and throat clearing, followed by people clearly fake-coughing and more-loudly-than-before throat-clearing, and then gentle laughter at all of the above. The scrim just stayed down and there was nothing else to do but sit in the dark listening to the sounds.

"There must be a technical issue," I whispered to my friend, and she whispered back, "Must be." The scrim stayed down. Because there was nothing else to do, everyone who was late to the draw on the fake-coughing (to tease the real coughers) and the loud-throat-clearing (to make fun of whichever stagehands were taking so long to get the next scene going) got in on the noisy fun, causing more laughter. It went on and on and finally the scrim lifted again and the show resumed.

Then, during the next scene change, it happened again. The scrim came down and stayed down. It rippled and wavered as presumably singers and stagehands walked around behind it, prepping for what came next. There was more coughing. There was more "coughing." There was more "throat clearing." Ahem. Ahem. Cough. Ahem. Cough. Cough. Ahem. Laughter. Cough. Laughter. Ahem. Laughter.

Mind-bogglingly, this pause in the dark lasted even longer than the first pause in the dark. And then something completely unexpected, something hilarious, something I'd never heard in all my years of going to Seattle Opera, happened. A voice cried out into the dark of McCaw Hall. Someone—it sounded like a male voice—said into the silence, directed at whatever was going on behind the scrim, "Do you need some help?" In that acoustics-optimized grand hall, everyone heard it.

And the audience lost it. There was no way to not hear the guy, and a gush of nervous laughter filled the place. It was partly nervous laughter, a welcome release from the pressures of Il Trovatore's plot—involving a woman burned at the stake, a witch's curse, an infant boy burned alive, his bones discovered in horror, and that's all just in the first two scenes—but it was also clearly meant to poke some fun at Seattle Opera and puncture all the seriousness. The warm, grateful laughter at the guy saying "Do you need some help?" got us through that interminable set change, and soon the show—full of torture, duels, spurned would-be lovers, suicide, etc—got back underway.

My friend said at intermission, "I hope there's a long, tragic death at the end. Those are the best."

Spoiler alert: She got her way. And it was more than just one tragic death.

While she and I were talking, the dramaturg, Jonathan Dean, came by, and I asked about the very long scene changes. Had there been some kind of repeated accident back there? He smiled and said that Seattle Opera used to have scene changes like this all the time—complex sets, tons of props, millions of little details that have to be got right—but that the audience just isn't used to that now that so many recent scenic designs have been projection-based. He chalked it up to a return to the old way of doing things, kind of the way Il Trovatore itself is a return to the old way of doing things.

The show used to be produced far more often, I'm told, but it's such a complicated show to sing—the four principals all have very difficult vocal parts—that it's rare for Seattle Opera to be able to book four singers who can actually do it at the same time. I for one loved the creaky old-fashioned set, and the anarchy in the dark during the set changes, and more importantly I was awestruck by the four principals, especially Leah Crocetto in the role of Leonora, the woman that two other men are going nuts for.

Here she is, in the center, being fought over by the guys:

Lester Lynch, as Count Di Luna, and Arnold Rawls, as Manrico, each have blades in their hands and are each about to die. As is she.
Lester Lynch, as Count Di Luna, and Arnold Rawls, as Manrico, both brandish blades in their fight over Leonora. All three are about to be dead. Jacob Lucas/Seattle Opera

Anyway, I recommend Il Trovatore. It plays at McCaw Hall through January 26.

* Extremely satisfying because it's extremely brutal. Happy operas are the worst.