By Ryan McPhee
“We want a Tony,” opera star Joyce DiDonato shouts from an office at the Metropolitan Opera. “We are technically on Broadway…”
The mezzo-soprano, singing the title Cinderella role in the Met premiere of Massenet’s Cendrillon, is not wrong. Fellow mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who plays her Prince Charming, chimes in: “We’re singing, we’re dancing—what do you want?”
It’s a quick commute from Lincoln Center to the theatre district, and both singers approach their craft with a theatrical sensibility not always found in opera houses. In fact, DiDonato has appeared Off-Broadway before (for one night only, in the cold-read solo show White Rabbit, Red Rabbit)—and mentions her award-winning performance as Veta Louise Simmons in a high school production of Harvey. Coote frequently offers detailed, character-driven explorations of her roles in essays and interviews.
While rehearsing for the production (opening April 12), another opera superstar—Renée Fleming—graces Broadway, as Nettie Fowler in the new revival of Carousel (also officially opening April 12). Asked if they’d consider following suit, DiDonato immediately chooses Mame as her aspiration. Coote gravitates towards the notion of doing a straight play; DiDonato offers up Mary Stuart, with the pair alternating between Mary and Queen Elizabeth (DiDonato having sung both in Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda).
As enthusiastic as the singers may be about the intersection of theatre and opera—and there was an abundance of enthusiasm as the two, seemingly just as in love with each other offstage, spiraled into fits of laughter and eccentricity—both assert there is an irreplaceable magic quality (in the case of Cendrillon, literally) singular to opera.
“It’s frustrating that we sometimes have to apologize…we mustn’t sit here and say, ‘Oh yes, it’s like musical theatre.’ It is like musical theatre, but there are things that it can do,” says Coote. “I’m talking about hitting you in the chest with the biggest, darkest, hugest sound that you could ever hear in your life—and it going right into your soul.” All that and without any amplification.
With Cendrillon’s Prince Charming written for a mezzo-soprano, the lovers’ duets produce a sound not just unheard in theatre, but a dynamic rarely heard in opera. “The sensuality and the innocence that comes by having two female voices so close in harmony—the union of those voices as two females—makes you breathless in the audience if we do our job right,” DiDonato explains. “You don’t want to breathe, and you feel transported.”
“It’s incredibly sexy,” adds Coote. “It’s very rare that you would hear two people singing a love duet where they can build gradually like jazz, and then eventually arrive exactly on the same note and climax together, as it were.”
Such synchronization in lovers often requires a shared history. Coote and DiDonato have just that, and it shows: They finish each other’s thought at times, and at others they interrupt thoughts to compliment one another’s glittered shoes. While DiDonato began with the staging, directed by Laurent Pelly, in 2006, opening it in Santa Fe in 2006 opposite Jennifer Holloway, she and Coote performed together in this production in London in 2011 before reuniting two years later in Barcelona, and now in New York.
“It feels stronger now than before,” says DiDonato. “The world around you feels heavy and dark and chaotic. When you’re immersed in a ray of light—and this piece, for me, is a ray of light—it feels brighter than ever. It’s the perfect moment for it to arrive here. It’s like the Broadway musical during the Depression or World War II. People are saying, ‘Please show me something happy.’ Not superficially happy, but deeply, sincerely magical.”
“That’s the nature of fairy tales,” adds Coote. “The things that are happening daily—somebody goes into school and then they don’t come out alive—whatever may or may not happen in the world, we know for sure that someone’s going to solve it at the end of thispiece. We see our struggles and what we wish for. We wish it, and it comes true.”
Cendrillon’s wish comes true, albeit with the help of a fairy godmother (sung by Kathleen Kim). Pelly’s world evokes a child’s storybook, with set elements like Cendrillon’s fireplace and carriage created through visual representations of French text. The stylized staging suggests the characters are paper cutouts, as they would appear on the page. But despite these fanciful elements, the performers maintain the piece should not be viewed as mere escapism. Because for them—however “cutout” they may appear—it’s very real.
“The second I play it as a fairytale, or the second I don’t take it as if I’m playing Hamlet, it becomes totally unbelievable,” DiDonato says, before adding, “My theory is the plots of operas are ridiculous to give the landscape for us to delve into the depth of the human psychological emotional spirit.” Coote interjects, suggesting it’s no more ridiculous than the plots of Shakespeare or James Bond—though those don’t have “the greatest music that ever was composed.”
It’s not the character’s responsibility to find the plot absurd. Nor can it be the performer’s. “The only way to sell it is to be 100 percent believing in it,” DiDonato says. “I’ve never had a situation in opera where I couldn’t find that. It’s magic.”
“But it is real. It really does happen, doesn’t it?” a wistful Coote asks, staring at DiDonato.
“It does happen,” her princess replies.
“We really do go off together and get married, don’t we? And live happily ever after?”
“We do, yeah.”
And win Tonys?
Cendrillon, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, will play eight performances at the Met through May 11.