The twists and turns of George Frederick Handel's opera ``Xerxes'' can be hard to follow.
Cross-gender roles call for a woman to play the kingly title character, Xerxes, and one of the female characters disguises herself as a soldier to eavesdrop on the king and his beloved Romilda.
``It's a very confusing opera,'' said Terrence McKerrs, a Topeka free-lancer who is overseeing the stage direction for the KU Opera production. ``But it's pleasantly beautiful to listen to. ... It's really beautiful vocal work.''
The Italian opera, a mix of comedy and drama, features a text taken from a libretto by Minato.
``Handel's score is exceptional, always responding with insight to the emotions of the very human characters,'' said Brian Priestman, KU professor and director of orchestral activities.
Priestman will conduct a 14-piece chamber orchestra and play harpsichord for the opera.
Singing the title role is Krista Lang-Blackwood, a graduate student in vocal performance who received her undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She and the other principal cast members began rehearsing individually in early September, and then began working together and with McKerrs in early October.
``I don't speak Italian and this is the biggest opera I've done,'' Lang-Blackwood said, explaining the challenges she had to overcome to perform the title role.
In the past, Lang-Blackwood has performed as part of opera choruses, so her involvement in ``Xerxes'' has taught her just how much work is involved in putting together a production.
``And I love Handel more,'' she said, adding that her experience with the composer had been limited to the ``Messiah.''
The three-act opera, which for the KU production has been set in India, opens with Xerxes hearing Romilda singing on her terrace. His brother, Arsamene, also hears her and becomes jealous because he also loves Romilda.
Arsamene wants to test Romilda's faithfulness to him so he hides when Xerxes invites Romilda to share his throne. She protests, and when Arsamene shows himself, Xerxes banishes him and goes off to Romilda to reproach her for spurning him.
Amastre, who was formerly pledged to Xerxes in marriage and stills loves him, appears disguised as a soldier and listens while Xerxes longs to wed Romilda. She discovers that while Xerxes loves Romilda, the lady does not return his affections.
Xerxes tells Arsamene that he can marry the woman he chooses on the day Xerxes gets married and tells Romilda that Arsamene does not love her. Arsamene and Romilda fight, reconcile and grow desperate, then bid farewell to each other. But fate intervenes and all is reconciled.
Mark Ferrell, KU associate professor of vocal coaching and accompanying, and Ellen Bottorff, Lawrence graduate student, are in charge of the musical preparation. Scenic and costume designer is Ron Zastrow, a theater faculty member at Washburn University in Topeka. Lighting designer is Frank Schultz, Topeka.
Other principal performers are Hugo Vera, Steve Timoner, Vanessa Thompson-Smith, Stefanie Moore, Todd Wieczorek, Erin Binter and Michael Podrebarac. The production also features an eight-member chorus.
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