Politics, Drama, and the Story Behind a Rare Mozart Masterpiece
It’s hard to think of any composer in history more beloved — or more astonishing — than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As a young boy, Mozart began composing music when he was just 4 years old. He finished his first symphony by age 8. And by age 11, he was writing full operas! He has become part of our collective cultural consciousness, from Monty Python skits to the Academy Award-winning film Amadeus. And yet for all that, Titus (La clemenza di Tito) is a Mozart opera that rarely gets performed.
Musically, Titus ranks among Mozart’s best works, for it contains some of his most breathtaking arias. After all, Mozart was at the full height of his musical powers when he wrote Titus in 1791. He had already composed three of his most famous operas — The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte — and was still finishing The Magic Flute. (Unsurprisingly, working on two operas simultaneously seems to have been no problem for the musical prodigy.)
What makes Titus truly unusual is its focus on politics. It is by far the most explicitly political of all of Mozart’s operas , although Mozart himself didn’t write the libretto. The opera was commissioned to celebrate the 1791 coronation of Emperor Leopold II, and so the court wanted a drama that extolled the virtues of a good king — an important message in light of the French Revolution, which put the very idea of monarchy across Europe at risk.
Mozart was asked to compose music for a libretto originally written in the 1730s by the Italian poet Metastasio. Unfortunately, Metastasio had passed away nine years earlier, so one of Mozart’s contemporaries, Caterino Mazzolà, reworked the story completely. By all accounts, he made it much more dramatically compelling, in addition to adding ensemble numbers and a grand Act I finale. Mozart worked quickly and diligently on the opera, completing it in just three weeks at twice his usual commissioning fee!
Sadly, Titus was also the last opera that this musical genius would ever create. The opera was first performed on September 6, 1791. Mozart passed away three months later, on December 5, 1791 at just 35 years old. We can only imagine what masterpieces Mozart might have produced had he lived to old age. The closest clue we have to how his music would have continued to evolve can be found in Titus.
This is an opera that many people do not get the chance to see, and so it is especially fitting that Stephen Lord chose Titus to mark the end of his tenure as OTSL Music Director. His entire career has been focused on identifying and promoting the most talented young artists, and now a cast of his former mentees will be re-assembled to tackle this virtuosic masterpiece – written at 35 by one of the world’s greatest young artists!