It’s a comedy with undertones of seriousness and suffering, not like most of Handel’s other operas. “Xerxes” is now playing at the Detroit Opera on select dates March 4-12, with a contemporary spin on the classic 1738 masterpiece about love and the limits of power.  

American countertenor on the rise Key’Mon Murrah, plays Xerxes, the most powerful man in Persia. Soprano Lauren Snouffer plays his love interest Romilda. One Detroit producer Sarah Zientarski-Smith got a behind-the-scenes look at the Detroit Opera’s “Xerxes.”  

She talks with Murrah and Snouffer about their role as the leads in the opera, and what it means specifically for Murrah to play his dream role as Xerxes. Plus, she talks with “Xerxes” conductor Dame Jane Glover and Detroit Opera President Wayne Brown about the strength of the cast and the exciting performances audiences can look forward to. 

Full Transcript:

Wayne S. Brown, President and CEO, Detroit Opera: Opera is about stories. Number one, it’s music set to text and to reflect increasingly the experiences of our time. 

Lauren Snouffer, Romilda, “Xerxes”: Xerxes is a comedy, so it’s a really great show because you get every element of what opera can be. You have the Opera Seria Forum, which is sort of this more serious form that Handel wrote in. 

Dame Jane Glover, Conductor, “Xerxes”: This is a comedy and there are very much comedic elements. But I think of it as almost Shakespearian, actually, in that it’s like as you like it or 12th Night, these plays, which are essentially comic plays, but of course have tremendous undertones of seriousness and suffering and all that happens here. 

Key’Mon Murrah, Xerxes, “Xerxes”: What makes Xerxes entertaining is its drama. It is hot and cold. Xerxes. He’s up and down. On a switch. He can go from mad and then he can go from happy. So I think that’s what it is. It’s the spontaneity of it. 

Dame Jane Glover: There are, you know, six characters and there’s a great deal of interaction. And it’s not like the normal Handel operas where you have a chunk of races and then you have long, long arias. It’s much more like a play. It’s almost like a Shakespearean play. There’s wonderful interaction between the characters. 

Lauren Snouffer: You have these two brothers dueling over a woman, me, who also has a sister who’s in love with the person I’m in love with. And it’s this whole hilarious like brothers and sisters love triangle. And then you have these comic characters that are built in into it.  So it’s you get the serious side of opera, but then it’s sort of wrapped up in a comic package. 

Wayne S. Brown: It’s a newer version. The music has not changed. And with that, it talks about preserving tradition, but also innovation. To incorporate the culture, to incorporate new experiences, and so that there’s a greater sense of relevancy between audiences and the art artists themselves. 

Key’Mon Murrah: There’s going to be Grade A singing. There’s going to be a lot of coloratura and high notes. My start is perfection. She’s great. I’m learning so much from her.  She is someone that I hope to be working with for the rest of my life and learning from them. So her vision of Xerxes, it’s… It’s what I’m striving to work for. 

Dame Jane Glover: Well, the lovely thing about this cast is that they are not only wonderful singers, but they’re all very theatrically alert. And the lovely thing is that everybody is bringing huge amount of creativity into the room. And I love that, and the director loves that.  And we’re not just saying, sing it like this or move there, because this is what we say.

We discuss motivation. We discuss who’s responding to whom. And all the singers, whether they’ve done the roles before. And I think only two, possibly three of them, have done the roles before. One of them has done two of the roles, actually, but they’ve all really thought about their motivation. They’re not just singers who want to sing beautifully and spectacularly, though they do, but really thinking about dramatic motivation and that I completely love. 

Lauren Snouffer: We have a countertenor, Key’Mon Murrah, who is kind of just emerging on the opera scene. And everyone is super excited about him because it’s like a one-in-a-million voice. 

Key’Mon Murrah: Well, it’s been a dream of mine from the very beginning. When I was a countertenor, when I first started being a countertenor. I started singing Xerxes Arias, so within a few years to actually play him is great. 

Dame Jane Glover: Key’Mon is incredible. He has a countertenor range, which goes up and up and up. I’ve never heard anything like it, actually. He’s going to have a big career, I think, with that voice. There’s no stopping him. 

Key’Mon Murrah: Everybody’s on top of their game. Handle has always when writing his music, he’s always brought the best singers of the time. And I really feel like Detroit Opera has brought the best singers for this show. Everybody is extraordinary. So I believe the audience will just have a really good time here. 

Dame Jane Glover: I think people will come and see a great story with unbelievably wonderful music, acted and sung by fabulous performers and played by the Detroit Opera Orchestra, which they know well. And with any luck, it should be a cracking evening in the theater on all levels. 

Wayne S. Brown: When you see such talented individuals come together, having invested the time and the character and the music, the energy, and to see all of that align into one moment. There’s nothing more magical than that. 

Key’Mon Murrah: I just want the audience to have fun and enjoy the ride. There’s a lot that’s going on. There’s a lot of beautiful music and beautiful singing, but… It’s a different world and it’s not what we live in today. So just coming in and just having fun, I think that’s what I want them to know. 

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