The Jacobs School of Music virtually premiered the first opera of the spring semester, “Xerxes,” on Friday and Saturday.
Starting at 7:30 p.m. each night on IUMusicLive!, the almost four-hour show told the story of Xerxes, King of Persia, who falls in love with Romilda and vows to make her his wife.
Each performance consisted of seven characters with different actors for each night, and 10 ballet dancers and 12 members of the opera chorus who performed both shows. Graduate student Liz Culpepper played Xerxes for the Friday show and graduate student Deepa Johnny played Xerxes on Saturday. Culpepper said she was proud of the work that was put into this production.
“The entire show is filled with such wonderful musicians and people so it feels like a big family when everyone's super supportive of one another,” Culpepper said. “I’m really proud of the accomplishments that we have created because it's such a good show and it's sad that more people aren't going to be able to see it.”
The production was streamed from the Musical Arts Center on campus. With the large stage, the cast was able to spread out and remain six feet apart while singing and acting out the story. The livestream provided subtitles to translate the Italian singing and recreate the opera experience at home.
Masks were worn throughout in-person rehearsals and the final performances, Culpepper said. After singing with masks through the pandemic, Culpepper said she barely notices it now.
“Obviously, it’s preferable to sing without a mask, but I don't even remember that much of how it feels different,” Culpepper said. “I've just gotten so used to singing with masks.”
To help with the transition to wearing masks, the production costume designers created custom masks that helped the singers perform. Culpepper said the mask has a cage that keeps fabric off one’s face while still covering the nose and chin.
Freshman Shir Ordo played Arsamene for the Friday show. She said the production started rehearsing midway into November, but had to move online when everyone went home for Thanksgiving break.
Ordo said everyone handled the virtual rehearsals well, but there were still elements that were missing from in-person rehearsals.
“There is normally a master week when everyone gets to meet everyone before starting the staging process and get to know everyone's voices and sync together,” Ordo said “We did have that, but it was online and a bit complicated.”
When students returned to campus in February, the production began rehearsals in the Musical Arts Center Monday through Friday, 5-10 p.m. In order to maintain safety guidelines, cast and crew wore masks, socially distanced, frequently got tested and followed a strict schedule of rehearsing and taking breaks, Culpepper said.
“Everyone's been amazing at really utilizing the time that we have,” Culpepper said. “But, it can be very disruptive as it feels a little less cohesive than a normal rehearsal experience because we're constantly breaking and coming back, and breaking and coming back.”
Johnny said she is thankful that a show like this was possible in the pandemic.
“People are starving for the arts and there's just been so much silence across the board in the arts community with so many shutdowns of opera companies,” Johnny said. “There's a definite need for artists to do something right now and I'm so glad that our university is giving that opportunity to do so.”