House of Cards meets Mozart in Tito, an immersive production by Renegade Opera running through August 14 at the Historic Alberta House (tickets available here). The local opera company specializes in interactive adaptations of classic operas, and now brings its hallmark style to La clemenza di Tito, transposing the original’s Ancient Roman setting to the twenty-first century. (Read our profile of Renegade’s multimedia collage The Secret Diaries of Pennsylvania Avenue, also based on Mozart’s opera, which premiered online in 2020 when the pandemic hit and Tito had to be rescheduled.) As an immersive theatrical experience in the manner of London’s Punchdrunk, Renegade’s Tito gives equal weight to stagecraft and music.
That experience starts the moment you pass through the venue’s doors. At the box office, I was met by a pair aviator-clad attendants. One of them welcomed me to the White House of the “Unified States of America,” and I realized I was speaking to the President’s security detail. Upon presenting a ticket, each audience member is given a press pass. This is elemental to the story, as the action of the opera begins with the first ever “Transparency Day,” where President Flavia Tito (Madeline Ross) is slated to greet the press.
After a pit stop at the bar for a glass of punch (the production is sponsored in part by Austin-based Tito’s Vodka), I found a seat near the front of the “press room.” The chairs faced a podium, behind which a futuristic eagle crest was mounted on the wall. I admired the spacious interior of the Alberta House and discovered the set completely surrounded the audience. To my right was the President’s office, and to my left a broom closet where, later on, the opera’s antagonists Victoria Booth (Lindsey Rae Johnson) and Sara Wilkes (Sadie Gregg) would plot to assassinate Tito.
At one point, the audience moved into an adjacent conference room, where Tito and her aides discussed the search for a running mate. Tito sings an aria encouraging the audience to trust in her leadership. The room was much smaller than the press room, yet Ross adapted to the space perfectly. She maintained the resonance of her instrument through softer dynamics and accessed her higher register without overwhelming the audience. The intimate setting also highlighted Ross’s acting chops: her facial expressions were as nuanced as a film actor’s.
The first act concludes with a cliff hanger assassination attempt. At intermission, the Tour Guide instructed the audience to vote on how to cover Transparency Day, and we were told our decision would affect the outcome of the show. On each ballot a number of headlines were presented that either upheld or denounced the administration. Since I had doubts about Tito’s political motives, I opted for denunciation. When I stepped outside the theatre, I overheard more than one conversation about the voting process.
“Clemency” is a notion central to the opera—the word is included in the original title—and we see its consequences play out in the second act. Sara Wilkes is given an opportunity to atone for her attempted coup d’etat, and Gregg does a fantastic job conveying her character’s conflicted emotions in a moving aria. After the confrontation, the results of the Transparency Day press coverage are seen in a giant video projection of Tito’s Twitter feed: the ultimate doom scroll.
Those less familiar with Mozart’s version (such as myself) shouldn’t worry about missing out in this production: Renegade’s modernization is thorough. The opera is sung entirely in English and there is a significant amount of spoken dialogue, penned by Ross, who is also Renegade’s founding executive director. The storytelling is aided by the White House Tour Guide (Beatriz Abella), who acts as the opera’s narrator and de facto voice of the people. Between scenes, Abella would comment on the hypocrisy of the elected officials and direct the audience’s attention to the myriad playing areas of the Alberta House.
Over the course of the evening the ratio of speaking to singing skewed more towards the latter. During a gorgeous lover’s duet between Anna Liebermann (Elliot Menard) and Sylvia Wilkes (Madison Hall), I was temporarily transported to the realm of traditional opera, thanks to the focused lighting and to stage director Joellen Sweeney’s effective use of the balcony. The seven-person chorus punched well above its weight, filling the Alberta House with formidable sound, and pianist Jesse Preis held the whole show together as a one-person orchestra.
It’s probably reductive to say that Renegade’s adaptation is opera without the “boring parts,” but the production’s chief innovation is its ability to showcase great singing through the more easily accessible medium of interactive and spoken theatre. Yet despite the ingenuity of the staging, the show’s strongest moments were still invariably found in Mozart’s music. Opera veterans and newcomers alike have something to enjoy in this unusual version of a canonical work.