Q&A: Russell Thomas on Emperor Titus, Mozart and more

Russell Thomas has dazzled LA Opera audiences as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca and Pollione in Norma. And now the superstar tenor is back to headline The Clemency of TitusWe caught up with Russell just in time for opening night (on March 2) — our own Titus gave us the skinny on this opera and why tenors have a bone to pick with Mozart.

Tenor Russell Thomas as Titus in The Clemency of Titus (Photo: Cory Weaver/LA Opera)

Tenor Russell Thomas as Titus in The Clemency of Titus (Photo: Cory Weaver/LA Opera)

Titus doesn’t get performed nearly as often as it should. In your view, why do audiences need to experience this opera? 

It’s my favorite of Mozart’s operas. The music is phenomenal, particularly the arias for mezzo-soprano, and the plot has everything from palace intrigue to betrayal and a scorned woman. And it’s a rarity, so audiences need to experience it whenever they get the chance—they may not have another opportunity to see it live for 20 years!

Emperor Titus is at the center of all the action. What are the most important moments for you in building your performance?

The character is built in the recitatives, particularly the orchestra-accompanied recitatives in the second act. It’s actually kind of a thankless role. Vitellia (the scorned woman) and Sesto (the betrayer and close friend) are really at the center of the action. The glory always goes to the women!

The emperor is the epitome of goodness and wisdom. Is it a challenge to make him “real”?

The figure that Mozart and [librettist] Metastasio based the character on was apparently pretty evil, but then had a change of heart for some reason. So the challenge for me is to find moments to hint at the darker side of this otherwise saintly figure.

It’s pretty rare in Mozart operas to have a tenor as the leading role.

He is the titular character, but I think the star of the show is really Sesto, the mezzo. Tenors do feel neglected by Mozart, or at least I do—I’ve studied or sung all of his opera seria roles for tenor, and it often feels like every other character gets better music!

You have a big milestone coming up this spring: your first staged performances of Otello, the ultimate dramatic Italian tenor role, in Toronto. (Los Angeles audiences got a preview of your Otello at the Hollywood Bowl last summer.) What’s going through your mind as you prepare for that?

It’s always tricky going into a production built for another singer—ideally, my first time in a staged performance would be in a new production tailored to me—so I’m very glad to have had three concert performances in Atlanta and at the Bowl to build my confidence. Otello is also new repertoire for the conductor, Johannes Debus, so we’ll be facing those challenges together!

Click here for more information or to purchase tickets to The Clemency of Titus.

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