A first look at Xerxes: Colorado State University’s fall opera

Story by Nicole Towne, UCA Publicity Intern

Colorado State University’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance presents Xerxes, written by George Frideric Handel, Oct. 26-29.

The Baroque-era opera – presented by the Ralph Opera Program at CSU, directed by Voice Professor John Pierce, and conducted by Maestro Wes Kenney – takes the 16th century piece and sets it at an Ivy League school during the John F. Kennedy era.

Taking on Xerxes

Xerxes cast in their 60s era costumes.
Xerxes cast in their 60s era costumes.

For Director John Carlo Pierce, it’s important to make the piece engaging and applicable, despite the fact that it was 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 it comes to you.”

Set and Costumes

Maestro Wes Kenney dressed as a marching band director.
Maestro Wes Kenney conducts the opera from onstage as the leader of the fictional school’s marching band.

The set designer for the show, Zhanna Gurvich, proposed the new setting for the opera.

“Reading the libretto, the story, and this macho ‘I’m the best’ kind of thing Xerxes has going on, made me think of football players and the big egos that sometimes go with that,” Gurvich said. “It seemed like it would be more fun to watch if it was set in something a little more contemporary and a little more relatable to the audience.”

Costume Designer Maile Speetjens suggested the ’60s time era.

By setting it in the ’60s, Speetjens is able to utilize the emerging trends of the time and speak to a unique and specific era.

Due to the shift in time and scene, the play has allowed room for imagination.

“One of the fun things I think for all of us is getting to put together a fictional college,” Speetjens said. “Zhanna’s assistant got to draw the school mascot, which is a manticore [a mythical Persian creature].”

Xerxes costume sketch - football team.
Xerxes costume sketch by Maile Speetjens, costume shop director.

Speetjens was able to pick the school colors: red, white and black. She has been working to outfit some cast members in football apparel. For this show, it is also her job to outfit the orchestra.

Unlike many past opera productions, the orchestra will be on stage for the show instead of in the pit below and in front of the stage. The orchestra will essentially function as the university’s marching band and will be dressed in red, white and black uniforms.

Gurvich said the set will contain a stadium exterior with a courtyard and a grassy banner above the stadium marking the 50-yard line.


Technical theatre senior Judith Franco created the lighting design for the performance. She was given the option to pick a show to create lighting designs for, and she chose Xerxes.

“I’ve been working a lot in the dance studio … but I wanted to do something new and different, and I liked all the operas in the past, so I thought, ‘Hey, let me go in there and see what I can do,” Franco said.

Xerxes set - concept model by Design Professor Zhanna Gurvich.
Xerxes set – concept model by Design Professor Zhanna Gurvich.

Franco added that this show uses a significant amount of side lighting to bring out the characters and the various arches in the set.

“I’m keeping [the lighting] a little warmer because most of the action happens during the daytime,” Franco said. “I’m trying to keep within the ’60s [theme], so making it a little more florescent than usual.”

Franco said designing the lighting for this show has been a good challenge, and it has allowed her to use various types of lighting to illuminate the performers.

Meet Director Pierce 

John Carlo Pierce
CSU Voice Professor John Carlo Pierce is directing the Ralph Opera Program presentation of Handel’s “Xerxes”

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.”


All are invited to see this art form that many faculty and students at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance are so dedicated to. CSU’s Ralph Opera Program production of Xerxes takes place on Oct. 26 and 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 in the University Center for the Arts. Tickets are available at csuartstickets.com.