On March 2nd, Californian audiences will have the rare opportunity to experience the Los Angeles Opera’s unveiling of a new production of The Clemency of Titus with emerging star Russell Thomas in the lead role. To quote artistic director Plácido Domingo, "The Clemency of Titus was unjustly neglected for more than a century, but with a true champion of Mozart, James Conlon, as our music director, it was only a matter of time before we introduced our audiences to this rarely performed masterpiece." Set against the backdrop of magisterial Rome and a fierce rebellion against a benevolent emperor in the year 79, Mozart’s opera shows great musical restraint, nobility, and ardency. According to legend, Mozart accomplished the herculean feat of writing the piece as a marathon commission for the coronation of Leopold II, King of Bohemia, in a record eighteen days.
Three months after its premiere, Mozart was dead. The legacy he left behind in this penultimate opera lies not in the political motivations of the piece which tie it to its pro-monarchical era, but more largely to the themes that transcend time, in the manner of Shakespeare’s historical epics: those of forgiveness and sacrifice. In the words of the master himself: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
Here to join us (Picture this Post, PTP) to talk about the opera is one of its stars, Janai Brugger (JB). Her character, Servilia, embodies Mozart’s conception of what music should be.
A noble figure, Servilia is prepared to sacrifice superficial glory for the rewards of sincere love, demonstrates remarkable honesty in her feelings, and teaches us the meaning of remorse, which must be followed by concrete actions. Janai took time out of her busy rehearsal schedule to answer these questions about her role and her stellar career.
(PTP) Describe your sound and artistic personality.
(JB) My sound tends to be on the warmer side and has a little darkness and roundness to it. Usually, I get asked to sing roles that are bigger than what I’m ready for, because my voice sounds bigger than it is. I’m definitely heading in the direction of heavier lyric roles, but right now, I consider myself more of a light lyric soprano. I find that I gravitate towards more dramatic roles, but I do love comedy and getting to sing light-hearted characters.
What early experiences drew you to opera? And at what point did you decide to dedicate yourself to this career?
My mother is an opera fanatic! When I was young, she would take my younger sister and me to see operas and recitals all the time at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
I remember seeing Kathleen Battle in recital, and she came out in a stunning yellow ball gown. She looked like a princess, and I was drawn to her from the moment she walked onstage. Then, when she opened her mouth to sing, I recall getting goosebumps, in awe of what she was doing and what I was hearing. That exposure certainly peaked my interest in opera. However, it wasn’t until I was a senior in high-school that I decided to go to college as a voice performance major in opera.
Our readers enthusiastically support the arts in all of their myriad forms, but few are aware of all the sacrifices that are involved to pursue this highly specialized path. May you briefly let us know what you think are some of the greatest difficulties of having an opera career, both psychologically and practically?
Hmmm...Well, everyone has their opinions on what’s most difficult for them, but I’d have to say that for me, the two greatest challenges are being away from home a lot and the pressure that I put on myself to be perfect. I love to travel, see the world, and meet incredible artists along the way, but sometimes when my schedule is super packed, I don’t get to be in my own bed for a while. I strive for perfection, even though I know that’s not realistic.
Practically, I’d have to say that navigating the profession as a new mother was pretty difficult.
My pregnancy and career literally started at the exact same time, so I didn’t know what to expect on either platform and had to learn on my feet what worked and what didn’t. It’s all doable, but you have to find the right balance that works for you and your family and then surround yourself by those who support and encourage you and can help you manage that.
You have studied or worked in masterclasses with some of the most formidable female singers of the 20th century, including Shirley Verrett at the University of Michigan and Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall. What were some of the most essential or memorable pieces of advice that they imparted to you?
Marilyn Horne taught me to place a great importance on the text -- on really speaking the text first and getting it to be as natural as possible in whatever language I was singing. She also spoke of adding meaning to every phrase and understanding where they were going, and not where they were starting. Shirley Verrett taught me so much in the short time that I was grateful to have her as a teacher. The most important advice she ever gave me was to “hurry slowly”, or to move at a pace that is comfortable for you and taking the time to learn as you go, so you don’t have to be in a rush. That has literally stayed with me for so many aspects of my career, whether it be technical, learning a certain role, finding the right manager or the right young artist program, choosing competitions, etc.
Your work has taken you to houses ranging from the Lyric Opera of Chicago to the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and San Francisco Opera, to name but a few. A frequent guest artist at the Los Angeles Opera, you have returned to grace the stage in operas by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. In your opinion, what makes Los Angeles’ house unique or special?
Ah...Well, LA holds a special place in my heart because it’s where I did my 2-year young artist residency. I find LA’s house special because it puts its young artists on the stage right away, mostly in small roles, but also as covers for major roles. Getting to be onstage in an A-level house is huge and truly exciting! I made my debut as Barbarina in a grand production of Le nozze di Figaro which was conducted by PLACIDO DOMINGO!!! I mean, that was an absolute highlight of my life, since I had grown up listening to him as a little girl. The LA Opera always brings in wonderful coaches from all over the world to work with the young artists, and they recently added improv classes which I found to be a huge help when onstage. It’s a lot of work, but it really prepares you for what the business is like in the real world.
Your career took off after you won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2012 and Operalia, two of the most important international opera competitions. What are the differences, if any, between the preparation and focus entailed for a competition versus a performance?
For me, there really wasn’t a difference in terms of my preparation. I took each aria that I chose for my competitions and translated word for word what everything meant, found my subtext with each aria so that I could make it my own, and then added the notes and rhythms. I also coached all of my repertoire a lot to make sure I was really prepared to sing each aria. I do the same when learning a role for a performance. I study the text and translate, find my own unique spin that I can add to it, and then coach it a bunch of times. The biggest difference between the two types of presentation is that performances allow you to hide behind a costume and play with props. When it’s a competition, the experience is a lot more intimate and sometimes a bit more nerve wracking, because you feel so vulnerable and exposed.
We are celebrating the birthdays of many great divas recently -- such as Renata Scotto’s on the 24th or Mirella Freni’s on the 27th. Who are your inspirations? What do you believe are the qualities that lend a singer the title of a diva?
Oh gosh! I have so many singers that I admire, but if I had to name a few, I would say: Shirley Verrett, Marian Anderson, Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Diana Damrau. In my honest opinion, I feel that a true “diva” is someone who is unapologetically themselves, confident in what they have to offer, and willing to do the work. I find those qualities to be amazing and what I strive to embody as I learn more about myself as an artist.
The theme of sacrifice is prevalent in many operatic heroines ranging from Cio-Cio San to Liù, the role with which you made your Metropolitan Opera debut. What does Servilia’s sacrifices indicate about her? What scene or quote from the libretto is most indicative of her character?
This is only my second run singing the role of Servilia, and I always learn something new about her each time I inhabit her character. I believe that she’s the most sincere character in the opera. She is truly in love with Annio and loves her brother Sesto dearly. I love her aria in the second act, “S’altro che lacrime.” Her brother has just been taken away to be executed, and she goes to the one person she believes has the ability to stop it. In that moment, she finds that person in a weak position. Servilia is able to momentarily set aside her own fears and pain and tell this person that pity and tears are useless, and that they won’t save his life. So my character shows confidence and strength during a crucial time.
Why should people listen to opera, and why should they specifically come to see The Clemency of Titus?
I find that opera helps us to escape into a world that we could not have imagined before.
This Clemency of Titus has one of the most gorgeous sets I’ve ever seen, as well as stunning costumes on every single person that walks onstage! It’s a period piece, but our director Thaddeus Strassberger has added a modern flare to it that I believe people can relate to and understand. The music is so extraordinarily beautiful and sung by such incredible artists that you will be moved to tears. It’s about love, revenge, politics and most of all, forgiveness.
March 2 - March 24
Evening curtain times: 7:30 PM
Matinee curtain times: 2:00 PM
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA