Going to the Opera With Grandma: ‘Nabucco’

I’m trying to come up with the perfect metaphor for Seattle Opera’s Nabucco. Some way to describe an outfit known for producing quality work releasing something that blows all of its previous output out of the water. First, I wanted to quote the Emperor from Return of the Jedi: “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station!” But I don’t want to compare the benevolent Seattle Opera to the sinister Galactic Empire. PLUS we already knew that the Death Star was super powerful—it blew up a planet two movies previous.

Then I toyed around with some sports metaphors: Ali’s Rope-a-Dope, the Miracle On Ice, Michael Jordan’s entire career. None of them quite fit. So maybe the story of Seattle Opera’s Nabucco will become it’s own metaphor for some other writer down the line: “The Seahawks have been really, really good for a long time now, but WOW I had no idea they were capable of scoring 200 points in a single quarter! This is like Seattle Opera’s Nabucco production from 2015!”

This is the fifth production from Seattle Opera I’ve covered since I started this column and each and every show I’ve seen offered some kind of sensory delight: Don Giovanni’s breathtaking set design, Tosca’s intimate grandeur, Semele’s psychedelic video elements and Ariadne Auf Naxos’ anything-can-happen comic insanity. Nabucco, however, is somehow on another level.

First of all, it was composed by Giuseppe Verdi (Fun Fact: his name is Italian for “Joe Green”!), so the music is gorgeous. The second act chorus spectacle “Va, Pensiero” helped unite Italy during its 19th century struggle for independence. Added to all of that prestige, however, this specific production is wholly original. The orchestra has been brought out of the pit and sits on full display on the middle of the stage, so the audience is treated to the performers mingling with the musicians along with a vast, 50-person chorus, which lingers in the background. It’s visual and sonic overload, in the best possible sense. In addition to all that, the cast is impeccable. And the costumes. And the story. And the video elements. It’s an undeniably impressive and powerful experience.

Perhaps my excitement is just a reflection of my rookie status in the world of opera fandom. Surely shows like this come around fairly often, right? Fortunately, my opera buddy and biological grandmother Evelyn Troughton was in attendance with me to put such notions to rest. As you’ll see, she was just as blown away as I was despite having seen an estimated one million operas in her lifetime. She helped me put everything in perspective over the course of the show, but she was, sadly, unable to help me come up with a proper metaphor.

Sandwiches with Grandma
Sandwiches with Grandma

Before the show

How many times have you seen this run of Nabucco?

This will be the fifth of this production. I knew this one was going to be different because I read about it. As I may have said, I’m a traditionalist. But I still like it.

So what genre of opera would you say this is? Tragedy? Comedy? Knowing the subject matter, I’d be surprised if it was a comedy, but you never know.

It’s not a comedy. It’s not a tragedy. Because the main characters don’t die.

Spoiler alert!

[Laughs] It’s a drama. Historical drama. It’s based on the Bible. It’s the story of Nebuchadnezzar, a.k.a. Nabucco and the wars they had in those days, against the Hebrews. They capture the Hebrews and take them back to Babylon as slaves. Beautiful music. When you hear Mary Elizabeth Williams you’re going to be thrilled. And the Zachariah, his name is Christian Van Horn, he’s really a splendid bass. So I don’t mind seeing it five different times.

What should I be paying the most attention to as the opera begins?

You should pay attention to everything. You hear Mary Elizabeth or Zachariah and you won’t have any trouble paying attention. Pay attention to how different it is from most operas, which you can’t miss.

After Act One

Well, first off, this is so far my favorite opera. There’s nothing not to enjoy about it. They’re throwing everything at you all the time. And yeah, it’s totally different!

I told you so!

The placement of the orchestra in middle is so cool that it’s hard to see why Operas don’t do that more often. 

Well, I guess because it’s not traditional.

Have you seen anyone else do it?


And you’ve seen a million operas.

Not quite a million yet! [Laughs] But no, this is the first time that I know of that it’s been done. And it gives you a whole different perspective, doesn’t it?

The four times you watched this before, did the audience gasp when the curtain draws open to reveal the orchestra like they did tonight?

Yes! For most people this is the first time they’ve seen anything like this. So it’s quite a surprise for people who regularly watch opera.

There are four layers of action. The singers in the front, the orchestra, the choir behind the orchestra and the big screen in the back with the video content. There’s so much to look at. And the plot’s pretty interesting, too.

Just “pretty” interesting?

Well, usually I feel like the plot’s kind of secondary in most operas to the music. But this moves so fast. Remember, in Semele, how they repeated themselves over and over, like they had just a little bit of story that needed to be stretched out to fill the time? This one seems like they had a ton of story to cram into a short amount of time. So it flies by.

You remember why that was with Semele, right?

Yeah, because the audiences back then were drunk and not paying attention!

They don’t need to do that here. This got your attention, didn’t it?  And this isn’t your first Verdi, by the way. Tosca was Verdi, remember?

Oh right! That was my favorite until this one. I guess I’m a Verdi fan. Who knew? But this one is definitely my new favorite.

It gets better. I’m not going to tell you anything more about it, though. Something really amazing happens in the next act, but I want you to be surprised by it. You’ll know it when it happens.

After the show

“Go thoughts.”

Excuse me?

“Va, Pensiero” is translated “go thoughts.” The first words that came up, they’re sending their thoughts to their country, their homeland.

Ohhhh…okay. [Note: the author didn’t quite know what Ms. Troughton was talking about at this point in the interview]

They’re singing “mi patria”—“my home country.” That’s what they were singing about. You know, they were enslaved in Babylonian Assyria and they were homesick. And that’s what that whole song was about, being homesick.

OH! The song that the chorus was singing! The big, spectacular…

The most spectacular thing that you will ever hear?

Yeah, that’s the best thing that I’ve seen since we started going to the Opera. That was incredible.

Stunning. So they’re enslaved and they’re standing there by the river, so I expected to see a big projection of a river or of stars in the sky or something. And I asked Aidan about it and he said that he thought that any projections would distract from the song.

I think that was the right decision. When you have a fifty-person chorus and the prettiest song that you’ll ever hear, you don’t need anything else.

Yep. I could go see it again!

I could watch this a few more times.

[Laughs] I saw Nabucco in Washington, D.C. and I don’t remember a thing about that production, but this one, this I’m going to remember. 

I’ve been really impressed with everything I’ve seen at Seattle Opera so far but this was still some how EASILY the best of all of them. It was like they were throwing everything they had at us.

Well, you know what the man says, when somebody asks him which one is his favorite opera, he says, “The one I’m at!” [Laughs]

Yeah, but in all honesty, I’ve liked all of the operas we watched, but when we saw Tosca, that shot right up to the top and stayed there. But with this one, I thought…

Goodbye Tosca!

Yeah. I mean I still love that show but this one was so striking in the way they staged it and the cast was so great. Who was the actress who plays the bastard Princess?

Mary Elizabeth Williams.

Unbelievable. Everyone was great, but it’s a testament to her performance that in a show packed with talent she still totally stole the show. I kind of felt bad that anyone had to follow her in the curtain call after that standing ovation.

It’s been that way every night. Jonathan came up to me at the end during the applause and he said, “Do you think they liked it?” [Laughs]

Nabucco is going into its final week at Seattle Opera. Get tickets here. Seriously, you should get tickets. I don’t know if I mentioned it, but it’s really good.