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  • “Da uomo”Querying Gender and Sexuality in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
  • Ilana Walder-Biesanz (bio)

The young mezzo-soprano Gaia Petrone is dressed all in black, with a mohawk and overdrawn eyebrows; she sings the male role of Sesto. Andrew Owens (tenor) kneels beside her in similarly monochrome garb, barely restraining tears as the emperor, Tito. The place is the Theater an der Wien stage; the time, 2014; the opera, Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.1 Petrone as Sesto is singing an aria of repentance: “Deh, per questo istante solo, / ti ricorda il primo amor” (Ah, for just this instant, / remember our former love).2 Though it is the younger, less powerful Sesto who is begging forgiveness, in this production Tito seems more distraught: as Sesto finishes the aria, Tito grabs her/his hand and kisses it passionately.

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Fig. 1.

Gaia Petrone as Sesto and Andrew Owens as Tito during Sesto’s aria “Deh, per questo istante solo” in the Wien Kammeroper’s 2014 production of Tito. Still from the video stream by the Wien Kammeroper.

Used with permission.

There’s a lot of queer play here both in the text and in the performance. A female singer (Petrone) is playing a male character (Sesto, here presented as unambiguously male, though some productions problematize his gender presentation) [End Page 129] in a role originally sung by a castrato. Sesto expresses a deep emotional attachment to another male character (Tito), who seems to reciprocate romantic feelings. And this is just one scene (albeit a very queer one, to which I will return). La clemenza di Tito (hereafter Tito) features a second trousered mezzo and several other tantalizingly ambiguous relationships.3

The trousered mezzos provide a starting point for my investigation, but in and of themselves they no longer seem particularly queer. Audiences of early opera are used to seeing women play men, and inhabitants of the modern world are used to seeing women in trousers. The normalization of cross-dressing (on and off the stage) and the androgyny of modern dress shift the main locus of queerness in operas like Tito away from trouser roles and toward the relationships of those trousered characters. The explicit romantic relationships in Tito (Vitellia and Sesto; Servilia and Annio) are, I would argue, “mezzosexual”: trousered mezzos (or, rarely, countertenors) making love to sopranos in a pleasurable confusion of close bodies and voices.4 But the gender roles in these relationships are far from essential, with the male characters partaking of femininity (especially highlighted in the costume and staging choices of Jan Bosse’s 2014 production for the Bayerische Staatsoper [BSO]). To add to the pervasive confusion, the character of Sesto is involved in two friendships with strong homoerotic possibilities (with Annio and Tito), particularly within the context of the opera’s setting in ancient Rome. Such interpretations lead to several possible readings of the characters’ genders, sexualities, and motivations and provide a broader meaning to the opera’s titular theme of “clemency” as pardon, not just for a political assassination attempt but for transgressions of sexual and gender norms.

Why examine Tito? It is certainly not the only opera seria that displays the aspects of queerness in which I am interested. When I discuss Tito as a “queer opera,” I am speaking of it as an example of a larger phenomenon rather than an exception to it. Tito is an ideal opera with which to explore “queer opera” both because the features I draw attention to—trouser roles, ambiguous gender roles, and homosexuality with respect to both singer and character genders—are particularly abundant and because the opera has been produced frequently in recent years, which enables me to discuss a variety of stagings.

Throughout this analysis, I work from the premise that operas are living texts that are constantly recreated by directors, performers, and audiences. In my analysis, I will consider modern productions of Tito, as well as the libretto and music.5 Productions implicitly or explicitly connect texts to contemporary events and concerns, and they reflect deep analysis of the libretto and music by directors, conductors, [End Page 130] designers, performers, dramaturges...


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pp. 129-152
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