Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong sings her first Mozart role in LA Opera’s The Clemency of Titus. She gave us her thoughts on the character Sesto, a Roman patrician who is caught between his love love for another and his loyalty to Emperor Titus (you know, the ultimate “pals before gals” dilemma).
Is this your role debut as Sesto? What drew you to interpret this character?
Yes, this is my role debut as Sesto. Honestly, when I first accepted the contract, I was only familiar with the piece in relation to my familiarity with Sesto’s arias and the opera’s topic of clemency.
How has your understanding of Sesto progressed from when you started learning the role, to now?
My first impression, when beginning my study of Sesto, was not a positive one. I had a difficult time caring about his plight. How could he be so weak? Who would attempt to kill their best friend for an emotionally abusive lover? Even the two arias felt oddly similar, self-serving and spineless. Then, I realized, the problem wasn’t him, it was me. I was drawing conclusions without empathy. Emotional abuse tangles the mind and distorts perspective. It is precisely the love through clemency that Titus shows Sesto that solidifies the fact that he will never act in the same way again. That said, the text and music, at face value, weren’t enough to convince me of his suffering and worthiness of a second chance. It became my challenge, and subsequent reward, to convey his internal conflict and the truth of his devotions, however misguided at times, through my chosen ornamentation, dynamic variations, and physical responses to the other characters. I had to find a way to portray Sesto that would warrant Titus’ clemency.
As an artist who sings music from many different eras of opera, what about Mozart’s music stands out to you?
This is my first Mozart role, oddly enough, so we are still in the “getting to know you” phase, operatically speaking. I, of course, know The Magic Flute, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro as a listener, but my familiarity with Mozart, as a performer, has been from his concert works. The ‘Lacrimosa’ movement from Mozart’s Requiem is a personal favorite of mine. For me, it is Mozart’s ability to distill music to its essence, easily understandable rhythms and frameworks, and then infuse it with such a rich harmonic language, that makes it unique and singularly effective.
This is the second time you’ve sung with LA Opera. How has your experience been returning to the company?
It is always a pleasure to return to LA Opera. And, yes, I know that is what I’m “supposed” to say. It just happens to be true. LA as a city has such a unique energy and there are certainly worse places to be in the winter. What really makes LA Opera special, however, are the people behind the scenes! The stage management team, music staff, and wigs/makeup/costuming folks are all AMAZING! We singers get the applause at the end of the night, but much of it is owed to the hard work of the lovely people back stage.
What are your favorite things to do while visiting Los Angeles?
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface here in Los Angeles. With our busy rehearsal schedules and then performances, it can be difficult to get out and explore. I did make a trip to The Last Bookstore and loved it. That said, people watching from my downtown balcony provides quite a bit of entertainment! To anyone reading this, feel free to Tweet some recommendations to @egdeshong! I’d love some insider tips!LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.