A First Look at Xerxes: Colorado State University’s Fall Opera

By Nicole Towne, SMTD Publicity Intern

In just a few weeks, Colorado State University’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance will present the opera Xerxes written by George Frideric Handel.  The opera, presented by the Ralph Opera Program at CSU and directed by Voice Professor John Pierce, takes the sixteenth century piece and sets it at an ivy league school during the John F. Kennedy era.

Meet Director Pierce

Pierce has directed 11 operas and performed various leading roles in operas in the U.S. and abroad. He has a long history of theatre involvement and has a passion for the stage, but didn’t know about opera until college.

“I came into my college career not knowing anything about opera,” Pierce said. “My voice teacher said to me ‘would you like to be in an opera?’ And I said ‘What’s an opera?’ The first thing I did were scenes from Hansel and Gretel, and I was absolutely hooked.”

Pierce said he began spending a lot of time listening to opera recordings and following along in the score, but was unsure if opera was for him.

“If I would see opera on TV it was always large people with Italian names, and I thought I’m just a kid from Massachusetts; I’m not an opera singer,” Pierce said. “It really wasn’t until I started my career as an opera singer that I thought this could actually be something I do for my life.”

Taking on Xerxes 

For Pierce, it’s important to make the piece engaging and applicable, despite being written nearly 300 years ago.

“I think that it’s really important in the 21st century that we really try to relate these stories to our public in a way that makes it feel a little less like a museum piece,” Pierce said.

Part of Pierce’s goal is to get the cast comfortable with the language and have them understand the piece themselves. By doing so, they can provide a clear and comprehensible presentation for audience members. Not only do the cast members practice their lines and vocals in the language of the production, Italian, but they also break down the scenes and translate it into modern day English. This helps the actors and actresses really get a feel for the piece and the emotion behind it.

“Our number one goal is to tell a story that is compelling, that’s interesting, (and) that’s relevant to today,” Pierce said. “Even though we are singing in a foreign language, the visual and oral impact is strong.”

First Time at the Opera?

Pierce encourages new opera goers to come with an open mind and without preconceived notions.

“First of all, as a new opera goer it is important to drop your expectations at the door,” Pierce said. “Instead of going in and thinking this is going to be stuffy. This is going to be old fashioned… Go in and just experience it as comes to you.”

The Ralph Opera Program production of Xerxes takes place on Oct. 26, 27 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 28 at 8 p.m.; and Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. All performances will take place in the Griffin Concert Hall located within the University Center for the Arts. Tickets are available at csuartstickets.com