On March 2nd, LA Opera fans will head to Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the first night of Thaddeus Strassberger’s production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus” in English). Strassberger is one of the opera world’s most versatile directors and designers, as much at home in an aesthetic from the classical or baroque periods as he is in present day settings, as comfortable in large spaces like Covent Garden or the Dorothy Chandler as he is in a compact workshop. In this interview, Strassberger gives us insight into the way he works and why the theme of forgiveness in La clemenza is so important to him and to all of us.

DK: How long does your acquaintance with La clemenza go back?

TS: About 20 years, to a time when I was studying at La Scala and had a good archaeologist friend who was living in Rome. We would walk around Rome all the time thinking “when do we get to do an opera where we get to put all this stuff that we see on stage?” Surprisingly, there are very few operas really set in ancient Rome that are part of the standard repertoire. La clemenza di Tito actually names all of these locations and I thought “One day, I'll get to set this jewel into a proper setting.”

What are the keys to a great Clemenza?

You have to raise the stakes, so that the audience expects a different reaction from the one they actually get from Tito. The title is a sort of a spoiler: it's a surprising thing, even today, that somebody decides to not take revenge. I actually find it connected back to Satyagraha, which is a piece that's very near and dear to my heart, tying in to the theme of Gandhi and ancient Hindu texts that there is a response to violence and aggression that isn't more aggression – it's not just a kind of Macbeth "blood will have blood" thing. Many times in the recitatives, Tito says "I know that people are acting badly with a malicious heart, but my response can be that I forgive you and I wish you wouldn't behave that way". There's something innovative about the opera and it takes you on unexpected little turns as you go along.

As a director or as a production team, what do have to do to bring that out?

You have to start with the text. Right now, I'm translating the surtitles, which is part of the process for me because ultimately, that’s what the audience reads. You have these very simple strophic structures that do seem sort of Handelian and old fashioned: “Non più di fiori” lasts seven or eight minutes but there's only a tiny number of lines of text. What I'm finding really interesting is how you can interpret that text both scenically, the colours, with the voice and everything musically as well as what you do with the actual text in the English. Through the translation of the surtitles, you can let the public see that Metastasio’s Italian poetry can actually be interpreted three or four different ways as you play it out.

When you first start to approach a production like this, how do you go about gathering your ideas?

In LA, this is the first time that they've done the piece in the whole history of the company, so I can take as a starting point that it'll be a first hearing or reading for a good portion of the audience. So I feel a kind of stewardship of the piece, to really tell the story in a concrete way with a strong narrative. That goes down to having strong characters that you can understand right away from the beginning and I think that you need to get inside their heads and have a point of view about them, not to feel exterior to the whole thing. I need to grab people right away; I need to understand the characters’ voices and then, I want to take them on a journey of discovery and transformation. The biggest pleasure for me – as a spectator or in my own work – is when you think the opera is going to take you one place, but it then twists and turns and ends up somewhere unexpected.

The singers need to arrive at same understanding and deliver it. How do you achieve that?

The very first day in rehearsal, I'll give a big presentation about the lifeblood of the piece and how it works visually. With a piece like this that is very text based, before every scene, I will sit down with the cast and we'll read through the text, basically table work as you would with Shakespeare or any sort of classical text: what's happened before this scene, what's the conflict in this scene and where are we trying to take it, how does it resolve. Then, as we start rehearsing it, I keep asking questions. Sometimes, with the actual interactions of the people and working with James Conlon [LA Opera Music Director] on the musical side of things, you discover there's a different way and you take that on board.

Barrie Kosky says that for him, everything happens in rehearsal. My guess is that you're a bit different?

I like to harness the feeling of spontaneity from the singers, but definitely going in a larger arc that is preplanned by me and that it's important to fit into. Many singers feel that they're being very spontaneous in my productions, which is very important, because you want their active participation and you want their body and soul and mind to be really present. But often, if I've done a revival with a completely different cast of a show, people come to me and say “Wow, I just saw something on a DVD of when this was done a few years ago in another theatre, and we're doing exactly the same staging as there. But that's impossible, because we invented everything here and it was so spontaneous!” It's a bit like a magician’s “pick a card, any card”: that there's a lot of free will involved, but I have a very strong sort of visual and philosophical arc already in mind.

What are the advantages of being the designer for your own productions?

Several things. One is that I'm always really aware about the acoustical qualities of the sets you create, and the materials that you choose, how much wall, how much ceiling, how steps work, how a raked floor affects the sound. Also, the more you work in a theatre, the more experience you have of how that works, so I've done two shows in LA and I feel like I have some ideas about the way to balance things out. With Mozart, there's an intimacy that you want, and I know which scenes that I want to be right down at the edge of stage, really close and some scenes that I can open up. I know that in some particular aria, I definitely want the soprano standing up in front of a hard wall that's made out of wood because I know that it's going to reflect the sound in a certain way. That's a really important component to me when I'm designing, that it's very difficult to convey all of that to another designer. If I design, say, the bed and the angle and the sonic quality of the sets, I know exactly how I want her to be in the bed in which aria and how she's singing it.

Scenery isn't just about what it looks like, it's also about how it moves. I think that there's a dynamic quality and sort of a poetry in motion of sets, and when I'm designing, I'm also thinking about the directing and how we slide or shift the transition from one to the next. Like Don Giovanni, La clemenza di Tito is an opera that's obviously designed in the baroque way whereby there's larger scenes and then a curtain comes in and then you play a smaller scene. I think about that in design; which of these scenes was written to be intimate, which is supposed to be more spectacular, and how to keep it flowing from all of these different locations: the first act has twelve different named locations in ancient Rome!

Dorothy Chandler itself is not by nature an intimate space. How do you create intimacy in that kind of building?

In a theatre that big, with the first audience member probably 10 metres from the edge of the stage, it's a big challenge. For me, the trick is almost thinking in a cinematic vocabulary, trying to find ways to zoom in and dial down and find that intimacy, whether it's through lighting or just the stage composition, finding ways to break the space into smaller units.

How do you perceive the LA opera audience versus any of the others you’ve directed for?

I think the LA opera audience is very visually oriented, with the idea of TV and Hollywood and movies. It's a very visual, fast moving world, and they don't have a big classical music opera tradition going back for generations, so I think that they do like to see big and impressive. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, it can be a tough aesthetic, aggressive and intense, but it needs to make a big impression.The other good thing is that often, people don't know the end of the story: they haven’t read everything on Wikipedia before they come, so you really can sort of feed them the information as you go along and tell them the story that we're choosing to tell – that’s very freeing for the performers, because in a repertory opera house, you're immediately aware of the comparisons that are being made before you walk on stage and that brings a lot of anxiety.

Are there any of the singers for La clemenza that you'd like to point out?

We have really good musicians with really good voices. Guanqun Yu, who is singing Vitellia, sung Lucrezia in my Foscari with Plácido. She's a Chinese woman who has lived and studied in Italy and sings a lot of Italian repertoire; she has a really kind of Mediterranean, fiery point of view on life. Russell Thomas has lots of experience of singing Tito, most recently singing it in the Peter Sellars production with Teodor Currentzis, so he's definitely mined lots of possibilities about how to approach the piece. And then we have Elizabeth DeShong, who was a composer for me years ago when she was still a young artist at Wolf Trap and she was already a consummate musician.

You mentioned Satyagraha, which the LA audience has seen and which you directed in Yekaterinburg. Can I take you back to another opera you directed there, The Passenger, where the cast seemed amazingly committed...

With The Passenger, I realised quite soon that the chorus and a lot of people there were hearing the background for the very first time, that they had never heard the word “Auschwitz”. They knew the idea of Holocaust and they knew World War 2 in broad terms, but definitely filtered through a Russian perspective, that 30 million Russians had died. So I did a huge presentation in the auditorium, to which we asked everyone in the theatre: the ushers, the ticket sellers, the administration, the cleaners, everyone that works on stage. We had about 1,000 people there, and I went through a kind of one hour TED talk on the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust and Jews and gypsies and homosexuals and political prisoners. And people were weeping in the auditorium, they had never ever seen these images, all the images of the liberation inside the camps. And now, The Passenger is part of their repertoire, it'll be there for the next ten years, and people will continue to engage with this material. People in Yekaterinburg had heard the name Martin Luther King, but until I gave a big presentation in Satyagraha, they had no idea that there were civil rights protests in America where the police unleashed German shepherds on American citizens and turned water hoses on them, that people were killed and churches firebombed.

It’s about breaking down the ideas about the different cultures, and that’s what these operas give us. They're not just entertainments that last three or four hours of some beautiful music and good singing: they're opportunities then to discuss the actual subject matter. That’s my hope for La clemenza di Tito, that it's not just an evening of Mozart that's part of our subscription package, but that we're dealing today with a really difficult time, particularly with the situation with migrants. Instead of demonising them, what if our leaders were saying “There's people that have offended us and tried to break across the border, but we could say listen, why don't we try to help you out? Because we're one of the richest countries in the world and we've got actually plenty to go around. And the reason why a lot of our own people are suffering is due to internal problems and nothing to do with you.”

It's a great pipe dream...

Yes, but it also opens up discussion. In addition, LA Opera gives opportunities with education programmes and classroom talks and discussions, plus all the things that I'm saying and writing programme notes about. So it all has a chance to diffuse beyond dressing up for a night at the opera.

Strassberger's production of La clemenza di Tito opens on March 2nd, 2019 at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. See the listing here.

This article was sponsored by LA Opera.