The Clemency of Titus: How Mozart Inspired an LA Opera Employee’s Critical Understanding of Opera

Vengeance. Betrayal. Love. And mercy. These are all ingredients that make for a tantalizing storyline. Opera is known to possess all of these exciting qualities, not to mention impeccable music that matches the fervor of the drama. Mozart’s The Clemency of Titus is no exception  since it’s 1791 premiere in Prague, the opera has since been staged all over the world at nearly all of the top opera houses. It’s not hard to see why this exciting production deals with how far one person is willing to go for power. And that’s what attracted Arya Roshanian, Content Specialist at LA Opera, to it in the first place.

“I did extensive research on the opera in the last year of my bachelor’s degree,” Roshanian said. “I was drawn to the opera immediately after seeing it for the first time through the Met’s Live in HD program at USC. Musically, dramatically … it’s drama, thriller and comedy. It has everything.”

Roshanian has a particularly special relationship with the opera. La Clemenza di Tito was his first introduction to the Metropolitan Opera while he was studying opera in college, and he would later study its themes and music extensively at the end of his undergraduate studies. He says that this opera set the tone for his love of opera seria.

“I was majoring in classical voice at the time and was learning some of Tito’s arias. I wanted to see the opera to get a more in-depth idea of the storyline and fell in love with it. I didn’t realize at the time that it would eventually become my favorite opera.”

A bust of Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, Emperor of Rome from 79-81 AD

A bust of Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, Emperor of Rome from 79-81 AD

Mozart’s penultimate opera The Clemency of Titus (La Clemenza di Tito) is set to hit the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage next season for the first time in LA Opera’s history, and with new production directed by Thaddeus Strassberger (from 2017’s critically-acclaimed production of Verdi’s Nabucco). Starring Russell Thomas in his first return to LAO since Tosca  in 2017, the production features a number of returning artists, including fast-rising mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto, Guanqun Yu as Vitellia and former Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Janai Brugger as Servilia.

LA Opera has seen many of Mozart’s operas appear on the stage in our 32-year history, such as the three operas created with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, also known as the “Da Ponte trio”), The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute. However, La Clemenza di Tito has been a long time coming — it is only one of three opere serie Mozart composed, which is Italian for “serious operas,” closely associated with the 18th century that focused on weighty classical or mythological themes (the other two being Idomeneo and the lesser-known Mitridate, re di Ponto). For opera lovers, these three “serious operas” indicate a marked shift from Mozart’s more typical, comical opera buffa style, meaning “comic opera,” such as the Da Ponte trio. As opera seria saw a decline in the mid-18th century, Mozart and his contemporaries bought the genre back into popularity towards the end of the century.

“I had never been an opera seria buff until seeing Clemenza,” said Roshanian. “The production I saw had mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča as Sesto and Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia. It was truly a master class of fine singing. At the time I wasn’t as aware of this genre of opera. After that, I remember going to the school’s music library and just reading the scores of Handel and Mozart in the stacks for hours.”

Though La Clemenza di Tito may not be as frequently performed as some of Mozart’s other titles, it does contain some of his most famous music, such as Sesto’s Act I aria “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio.” Like other opere serie, much of the action begins before the opera even starts. In the backstory, Emperor Vitellio’s crown had been usurped by Vespasian, Tito’s father. Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor, felt that the crown was rightfully hers. She had hoped to marry Tito and become empress of Rome, but when he chooses another bride, she vows revenge against him.

A preliminary set design of LA Opera's upcoming production of La Clemenza di Tito by director Thaddeus Strassberger

A preliminary set design of LA Opera’s upcoming production of La Clemenza di Tito by director Thaddeus Strassberger

When the opera begins, Vitellia is conjuring Sesto, a young patrician, to assassinate his best friend Tito. Sesto, being very much in love with Vitellia, is torn whether to honor Vitellia’s request or remain loyal to his friend. Sesto is eventually manipulated into carrying out Vitellia’s plan and he sets fire to the capitol. Tito survives, and Sesto is sentenced to death. However, it is left to Tito to either push Sesto’s death sentence or pardon him of his crimes.

The opera had such an effect on Roshanian that he would study its themes in detail for a senior project.

“About halfway through my degree, I switched from music performance to an emphasis in music history,” Roshanian continued. “For a research project in my senior year, I studied the common tropes of opera seria, and included Clemenza in my research. I was not only able to gain a deeper understanding of the music, but the characters as well — why they’re motivated to do what they do, how they react, why they say what they say. And to me that is important, because I now look for these things in all the operas I see or listen to.”

If there is one thing to know about the opera before going, Roshanian says is to pay attention to the character development.

“There are no stock characters in this opera. There is so much to learn from them.”

La Clemenza di Tito opens in March 2019. For more information about LA Opera’s 2018/19 season, click here.

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