What Makes Thrillers Thrilling?
A Close Look at a Dramatic Genre and Its Conventions
For this activity, each student will need photocopies of the printed resources found here.
STEPS For many students, opera is a brand new art form! This activity is designed to help young people approach Tosca in the context of entertainment they’ve enjoyed in the past. Along the way, they’ll develop a framework, which they can apply to a variety of works of art, including the Met’s Live in HD transmission.
Students will access prior knowledge of thrillers and action films to generate a set of analytic criteria. They will be introduced to the storyline of Acts I and II of Tosca, illustrated with brief excerpts from the music and libretto, in order to identify thriller-like elements. In a follow-up activity, they’ll predict what might happen in Act III.
Step 1: Pose the question, “What is a thriller?” Have the class create a list of movies and books that they consider suspenseful. Examples might include superhero adventures like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight, action movies like Die Hard or The Terminator, fantasies like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, or mysteries like The Da Vinci Code or Sherlock Holmes. Students may disagree about whether or not to include a certain work: include it for now, then proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: Ask students whether they have seen or read any of these works more than once. Why? What keeps you on the edge of your seat, even when you know the ending?
Use the list of movies and books to develop a set of criteria for thrillers. (You and your students can use the “Thrill Analysis Checklist: Attributes of a Thriller” reproducible to write down your thoughts.) It’s important to note that there’s no official formula for a thriller. Your students can define the genre for themselves!
Students may first mention aspects of the audience’s experience, such as:
Not knowing what will happen next
Suspense about what will happen next
Point out that the creators of thrillers use specific devices to achieve these effects. Although there isn’t a recipe for suspense, the plotting and characterization often include:
Protagonists in jeopardy
Physical and/or emotional violence
Twists, turns, and reversals of fortune
A diabolical villain
Protagonists who are sometimes heroic, sometimes just caught up in events
Character flaws that opponents exploit
Endings where the villain, though apparently defeated, returns
Students may mention some of these spontaneously. In other cases, you may need to prompt them by citing examples from movies and books on their list. You will probably have to introduce some of the more subtle characteristics yourself, such as:
Character viewpoints matter: some characters know things that other characters don’t know, or know them earlier
The audience viewpoint matters: the audience often knows things before characters do (the villain’s plans, for instance)
Information is not evenly distributed: the villain often has information that the protagonists don’t, which he uses to their disadvantage. Or information is kept from the audience, heightening their surprise
There’s an imbalance of power: the villain often has the upper hand through most of the story
Confrontations often take place on the villain’s territory
Music heightens the drama: think of the shark’s theme in Jaws or Indiana Jones’s victory theme
Step 3: Introduce the argument that the Met’s upcoming Live in HD production of Tosca is an operatic thriller. Students won’t be able to make a final judgment before the transmission, but for now, a close examination of Puccini’s work will provide some evidence one way or the other. Create a “Thrill Analysis” checklist based on the criteria identified in Step 2 (either on a large sheet of poster paper or using the reproducible).
Step 4: Have students read the synopses of Acts I and II only. (They can be found here. Note that Act III should not be presented here, since students will be predicting what happens there.) They may find the story dense or complicated. It may not correspond to their notion of a thriller at all. Counsel them to withhold judgment: the synopsis is merely offered to provide context for the next step of the activity.
Step 5: Students will now “examine the evidence” by listening to and reading brief excerpts from the opera. As they do, they should make notes on the reproducible “Evidence Report.” Audio track numbers for each “piece of evidence” are listed on the reproducible, together with translated excerpts from the Tosca libretto (Tracks 1–22).
After all “clues” have been considered, students will use the evidence they’ve gathered to fill in three “Thrill Analysis” checklists.
One checklist is the form mentioned in Step 3. (At this point your students can fill in the right side with evidence.)
The second, “What Happens When and Why,” zeroes in on moments in Tosca when “timing is everything.”
The third, “Understanding, Misunderstanding, and Consequences,” prompts students to consider how “who knows what when” affects the events of the opera.
(A filled-in educator’s key to the latter two checklists is provided, but discussionand analysis will differ from class to class: your students’ responses may legitimately vary.)
If appropriate in your classroom, students might enjoy working in pairs or small groups on Step 5.
Step 6: Bring the group together to decide whether they think Tosca qualifies as a thriller. To set up the follow-up exercise, point out that the opera doesn’t end with Tosca killing Scarpia. In Act III, she is reunited with Cavaradossi. Where might that happen? In Scarpia’s rooms, the setting of Act II? In the torture chamber? Downstairs at the celebratory gala? Back in the church, where Act I took place? In Cavaradossi’s garden? At a prison? What might happen? What Act III events would be appropriate for a thriller?
FOLLOW-UP: For homework, have students write synopses of their own “Act III“ for Tosca, the Thriller. These can be discussed in class after the Live in HD transmission.
EXTRA CREDIT HOMEWORK QUESTION: In Act I, shortly after Cavaradossi and Angelotti flee the church and Tosca returns, Scarpia says, “If a handkerchief could do it for Iago, maybe a lady’s fan will work for Scarpia!” Who is Iago? In which play, book, or other work of art can that character be found? What does the “handkerchief” refer to?
[Scarpia is referring to Iago, the villain in Shakespeare’s play Othello (and Verdi’s opera of the same name). The handkerchief in question was a gift from Othello to his wife Desdemona. Iago gets hold of it to trick Othello into believing Desdemona has betrayed him with another man.]