Be Here Now: “Xerxes” @ Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center This Weekend


Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

What better way to celebrate spring than with an opera about a tree-hugger?

The first full opera production in Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center will be Handel’s “Xerxes” at 8pm on today & Saturday (April 1 & 2). Directed by Artist-in-Residence Sylvia Stoner-Hawkins, the production features students in her “Opera Workshop” course, guest countertenor Chad Payton and Skidmore faculty baritone Dennis Blackwell, with the Skidmore String Orchestra, led by guest conductor Scott Schoonover and prepared by Senior Artist-in-Residence Michael Emery.

Handel’s seriocomic opera, which debuted in 1738, was based loosely on the ancient Persian King Xerxes. He opens the production by singing to his beloved plane tree the famous aria “Ombra mai fu” (“Never was a shade”). For her shortened adaptation, Stoner-Hawkins has the king launching a sustainability campaign: “We have turned the plot around to work with modern times,” she notes. And notwithstanding the distractions in the convoluted plot — the king falls for his brother’s lover, power struggles ensue, emotions escalate — “in our version the sustainability campaign is really successful.”

Originally designed for a castrato, the role of Xerxes today is usually sung by a female contralto or mezzo-soprano, or by a countertenor — a male with a high vocal range. Handling the Skidmore role is guest artist Chad Payton, a countertenor noted for his rich, full tone and vocal fluidity. He made his operatic debuts at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Michael Ching’s Corps of Discovery—A Musical Journey, and he performs in oratorios and chamber music recitals as part of Payton and the Pipes. He is an assistant professor of music at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., and a voice teacher and artistic administrator for the venerable Seagle Music Colony at Schroon Lake. Stoner-Hawkins enlisted him because “he is both an artist and a teacher. He knows the part, and he knows the baroque style. Students can learn a lot working with such a professional.”

WHAT: “Xerxes”
WHERE: Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Today (Friday) & Saturday, 8pm
HOW MUCH: $10; $7 seniors; FREE students & children



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