by Jacqueline Withers
What comes to mind when you think of the opera? If you are like me, you are probably picturing a Viking-helmeted, rotund woman singing in a foreign language at a pitch that could shatter glass. You may also have imagined an audience full of elitist individuals, decked out in fancy clothes and clutching their opera glasses as they sneer at their social inferiors in the crowd. (Don’t worry, this is a safe place, you can admit your prejudices). After seeing the preview of the Edmonton Opera’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella, I can assure you, this opera was nearly the polar opposite of opera stereotypes (while it was sung in Italian, operas now include subtitles on a screen projected above the stage)! And rather than a stuffy, uptight audience, I happened to be surrounded by 2000 elementary school children on a field trip during the preview, whose shrieks of delight during the performance were very amusing, though jarring at times.
In every way, this production seeks to modernize both Cinderella and the operatic experience by making them accessible for present day audiences. While this goal was arguable achieved as evidenced by the cheering and laughter from the child-infused audience, I found myself wanting less accessibility in favour of something more… highbrow?
Set in the 1950’s, this camp version of Cinderella more closely resembles Mad Men and haute couture fashion than it does the Disney or fairy tale versions most of us are familiar with. A few differences exist in the plot as well: in Rossini’s version, Cinderella is aided by a mysterious philosopher rather than a fairy godmother; the evil stepmother is replaced by a clownish, alcoholic stepfather; and matching bracelets, rather than glass slippers, reunite the true loves. The prince must immediately marry to avoid being disowned, and though he lives in a world of pomp and glamour, he sets out to find a bride who epitomizes innocence. To do so, he assumes a humble disguise which allows him to observe his potential brides as they truly are. From costumes that could have been plucked from Grace Kelly and Lucille Balls’ wardrobes, to the campy dancing and performing, Cinderella is filled with lavishness. While it sounds like opera, it’s a marked departure from both Cinderella we know it and from the traditional operatic experience.
While the performances, costumes, and choreography were extravagant and innovative (e.g., slow motion, domino’s-style scenes of cascading people and objects), the sets were scant and underwhelming. Perhaps this was meant to provide balance, but I was left wanting more. The departures from operatic convention didn’t end there. The entire performance took place at the front of stage since the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, obscured by a semi-translucent curtain, was seated just behind the sparse set. As a result, the performance felt claustrophobic and left me hoping, in vain, that depth would eventually be created by moving the set and the action further back. Another departure came in the form of breaking the fourth wall: actors entered and exited through the audience and emergency exits (typically a no-no in theatre). Taken together, these effects prevented me from ever being fully immersed in and enthralled by the production. However, during the intermission I heard another perspective on these directorial choices. Kimerica Parr, who worked as a professional opera singer, subsequently as a teacher, and currently as an University of Alberta Masters student in Music (voice), thought these choices were fitting for the fast-paced world we live in. Since everything’s always in our “face”, she claimed, it was designed to capture the audience’s attention. In this way, the director aimed to modernized the experience by making it accessible for audiences, particularly North American audiences who are not as familiar with the opera as Europeans are.
I think Parr makes a good point. While it didn’t work for me, it certainly seemed to be working for others. Parr also explained that during a season, productions are planned and released strategically: there will always be a crowd-pleaser that will please the masses, one new or experimental production (which is always a gamble). The rest of the productions would then be geared towards different types of audiences. Cinderella feels like it’s targeted for young audiences, those who are new to, or are put-off by, the opera. So, while this farcical comedy often veers into pantomime territory, Cinderella is not meant to be this season’s crowd-pleaser. It’s camp and over the top, but intentionally so. The cast is made up of world-class singers and local professionals (including University of Alberta Voice students and professor), and this is reflected in the quality of their singing. If you’re looking for highbrow entertainment, this isn’t the opera for you. But if you’re young, young at heart, or new to opera, you may really enjoy it.
One of Cinderella’s central themes was that appearances are often deceiving: rags and servitude may be concealing beauty and virtue, glamour and lavishness may be masking inner ugliness. When ignorance and prejudice are our guides, our perceptions go unchallenged, and there is a good chance we’ll end up disillusioned and regretful. This was true for the plot, and also, for me, the opera in general. If the prince had assumed good behaviour in public was indicative of goodness of character, he would have likely ended up in divorce court faster than a Kardashian. If you think the opera is all Viking horns and glass-shattering shrieking without giving it a chance, you might end up missing out on something you would enjoy. In both Cinderella and modern-day opera, things are not always as they have appeared. Did I love Cinderella? No. But did it challenge my perceptions and leave me wanting to return to the opera? Definitely.
Performances of Cinderella will be held on the evenings of February 4, 7 and 9 at the Northern Jubilee Auditorium. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact 780.429.1000 or email@example.com.
Banner photography courtesy of Edmonton Opera.