Mozart Made Modern

Originally published on The Genteel.

Michael Schade (standing) as Tito and Isabel Leonard as Sesto in the COC’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013. Photograph by Michael Cooper.

Michael Schade (standing) as Tito and Isabel
Leonard as Sesto in the COC’s production
of La clemenza di Tito, 2013.
Photograph by Michael Cooper.

In the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, costume designer Terese Wadden creates a visual reminder of the universal themes in the Maestro’s penultimate opera: youth, indecision, betrayal and, ultimately, forgiveness. Without Wadden’s rich and colourful costumes, the cast would fade into the background, a fate that would do no service to the music of the great Wolfgang Amadeus – even if it was an opera that was hastily cobbled together in his final year of life.

Having finished the bulk of his composition for The Magic Flute, Mozart was commissioned to write an opera seria for the coronation of Leopold II, King of Hungary and Bohemia. Needing the money, he agreed to write it, using a libretto written more than half a century earlier as its base. La clemenza was performed infrequently after Leopold’s coronation in 1791, but it has recently seen a revival in popularity. According to Operabase, in 2011 and 2012, there have been 93 performances of 15 productions in 11 cities.

In La clemenza, Vitellia (Keri Alkema), daughter of deposed emperor Vitellio, rages against Tito (Michael Schade), the new Roman emperor. She longs to be a part of the royal class and so she plots to have Tito assassinated by Sesto (Isabel Leonard), a man whose conviction falters from one side to the other. When Tito learns of the plot, he struggles with himself to make the right decision – either punish the conspirators, some of whom are close personal friends, or forgive and forget.

When I discovered that the COC was producing La clemenza di Tito, I was curious to see what it would look like. The last great visual I had of the opera was a prone Measha Brueggergosman enrobed in lush red velvet and satin as Vitellia in Toronto’s Opera Atelier. From the production shots, I knew the COC’s La clemenza would be very different, with tradition being turned on its head. What struck me most were the costumes, partly because the staging is so stark: director Christopher Alden has set the tale against a plain, hard wall that could very well be Lincoln Centre rather than an ancient Roman public forum. The wall is the backdrop against which characters plot to kill Tito and where Tito decides what course of action he should take.

“[The costumes were] inspired by Greek and Roman garb in a casual, American sportswear fashion way,” says Wadden, with Halston and Diane Von Furstenberg acting as her muses. Characters are clothed in Roman tunics, armor and helmets but accented with athletic socks and vintage fashions from the seventies.

“I used the Roman stuff as reference points, but I think the seventies were more seductive, especially because it’s a psychological study of the characters in some way. They all have a lot of issues – from lust and depression to political responsibility – but they’re young. They look more like a bunch of teenagers trying to figure out life.”

But why the seventies? Perhaps because it was a generation wrapped up in similar worries. In his book Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan described the decade as one of “decadence, decay, decline, dull inefficiency and apocalypse.” New York was similarly caught up in the grip of terror during the seventies; James Wolcott called it “Mogadishu on the Hudson.” This climate is palpable in La clemenza, which centres around the roiling turmoil of an empire on the verge of collapse. Emperors were commonly deposed and assassination plots festered in the streets. On top of that, Alden added another element that is addressed in the costuming – the pursuit of parental approval.

Wadden’s contribution to the opera is a visual reminder of the characters’ motivations. Tito wanders through the opera in a pair of silk pyjamas, his indecision highlighted by the fact that he can barely get out of bed. Sesto, the conspirator, and his friend Annio wear Roman tunics with trainers and headbands as accessories chosen to show off their youth and naiveté. Now that the age of castrato singers has passed, these “trouser roles” are often played by women.

Wadden didn’t want to be specific about Sesto’s and Annio’s genders. Youth and classic American sportswear are genderless; one need only look at the popularity of the Lacoste polo shirt. And what other arena does one look for parental approval more than in sports? Perhaps opera. Sesto and Annio go back and forth between their desire to please Tito and Vitellia. The chorus-background cast were given the ultimate background uniforms – that of tourists. These vintage costumes were sourced locally in Toronto over the summer, as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Wadden’s inspiration came from old photographs of tourists at the Acropolis.

Wadden’s costume designs have appeared in opera and theatre houses over the last ten years in America and now in Canada, where she made her debut at the COC last year. To her, “[fashion] is a fantasy.” When asked if she would ever work for a fashion house as opposed to the stage, she said no. “I’m not particularly interested in the marketplace. It’s very difficult [to sell]. If one had an amazing business partner or backing – that would help a lot, but it’s too hard. And to do it year, after year, after year and self-generate, and create a look and material. I think the fun, inspiring part of doing theatre and opera on its own, is the collaboration and that there’s a set project and you have to fulfill the requirements of the project in any number of ways.” Wadden’s next project is with a new American opera of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter at Opera Colorado and a play based on the life of film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

It can be difficult to bring an opera out of its original setting without completely losing the meaning, but Wadden’s costuming in this season’s COC production of La clemenza di Tito succeeds in keeping the familiar Roman setting, while revitalising its connection to the present with the styles and themes of the seventies.

La clemenza di Tito runs from February 3 to February 22. For tickets and information, visit coc.ca.

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