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Refreshing innocence

Tonight is the opening of Massenet’s Cendrillon here at the Royal Opera House. It will be the first time this opera has ever appeared on this distinguished stage, which is quite a moment in operatic history, and to say I’m exuberant is an understatement, for this is a role, amidst a most favorite production, that I simply adore.

I first met “Lucette” in 2006 with the Santa Fe Opera, and it truly was love at first reading. I remember opening

Laurent Pelly, our gifted and generous Stage Director

the piano score and playing the simple orchestral passage that introduces her, and my heart melted a bit.  Little did I know how well Laurent Pelly, our stage director, would capture that moment, as he first introduces Cendrillon peeking through a tiny cut-out door fit only for a mouse, immediately conveying to the audience who she is, and what fate awaits her.  (I’ve reveled in Laurent’s imagination as he expertly crafts the perfect entrance and exit for each character in this piece – each a brilliant device to punctuate who each person is: watch for the carriage’s entrance, the Mother gliding in on her own kind of thrown, the sisters showing their “ass~ets” on their first entrance, the Fairy Godmother sauntering victoriously off with her back to the audience while floating the highest of notes, the Prince stowed away, cowering in his misery.)

My joy in returning to this piece has been solidified during the rehearsal process as I watched my fellow cast members start to fall one by one for the magic of it! I bounded into the first day of rehearsal bursting at the seams, and the rest of the cast looked at me as if I was perhaps a bit mental.  That’s not necessarily an unusual reaction for me, but I hoped in this case I would be proven most sane by the end, and sure enough – through the course of stagings and orchestral rehearsals, they have each been transported into this Fairy Tale of innocence and charm.  I remember the first day Alice Coote, our fabulous Prince Charming, uttered, “I can’t stand this – it’s all too beautiful! WHERE has this piece been?!?!”  There’s been no turning back.

Alice and Laurent discuss

Cendrillon's "Carosse"

The thing is, this is not a perfect opera, by any stretch of the imagination.  There is probably a reason that it hasn’t entered the standard repertoire, although all of Massenet’s pieces have struggled to take hold ~ even his masterpiece Werther can’t QUITE claim to be standard rep.  Massenet is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, and seems to fall into the category of being “too French”, whatever that means.  But that’s the PRECISE reason I adore it.

In rehearsals the words “innocent” and “charming” and “naive” kept creeping into our conversations: “This duet is so PURE and INNOCENT”, for when the Prince and Cendrillon first meet at the ball, she says things like “I want to consecrate my life to you”, and most simply of all, “You are my Prince Charming.”  There are no curses, no murders, no leaping off tall buildings.  Not a single army jacket or combat boot to be found. Instead, Laurent wisely chose to let the piece be simply what it is: a fairy tale.  A gossamer fairy tale, in both story and MUSIC.  And honestly? I find it unabashedly refreshing right about now!!

I think there was a reason the Busby Berkeley Musical’s were so popular during WWII and the Depression Era, as people longed to be transported out of their every day misery and struggle.

I’m not so sure that we’re in such different times at the moment. Lots of questions hover around us at the moment: what

The Book of Fairy Tales serves as the foundation of this production

value do the arts carry? who exactly deserves equal rights? is tolerance, or even better yet, acceptance possible? I’m the very first person to recognize the importance that the arts play in opening up (to quote Sister Helen) “a civil dialogue” between people to sort out some of the hard pressing issues of today, but I also think it’s important to simply let music/art/opera CARRY US AWAY from time to time. To allow ourselves to dream a little bit? To escape? To laugh? Maybe to cry? To remind ourselves of what innocence was like, and to allow things to CHARM us.

One of the big things I try to encourage young singers who are SO intent on making it in this career, and who are determined to conquer that horrible beast, perfection, at all costs, is to never, ever forget the element of PLAY. It’s the reason most people are first attracted to music – we bang on the pots and pans, pound on the piano keyboard, astonished at the SOUND that arises out of our interaction with an instrument. Before we are taught that there is a “right” way to “do it”, we are simply PLAYING! I find that this piece is a gift on a silver platter for all of us to simply settle in and play, hopefully bringing the audience along for the ride!

One other tiny thing? This cast is such a dream and I feel so honored to share the stage with them. Is there another opera (well, surely one of those Handel ones!) that allows for FOUR MEZZOS to share the stage? It’s Mezzo-palooza all over again! I do hope you will all enjoy it!

PS If you do end up loving the production, I had quite a fun time shooting some photos during rehearsals (and surely more will appear during the course of the run!) You can investigate them on my FLICKR page for fun!

Playing in my spare time. Photo: Alice Coote!

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