Cinderella – new adaptation of Pauline Viardot’s chamber opera Cendrillon 

Presented by: Cape Town Opera (CTO) in association with A&M Productions
Language: Performed in English
When and where: July 4-8, 2023 in theArtscape Opera House. Evening performances are on July 4, 6,7 and 8 at 7pm, with matinees on July 5, 6 and 8 at 2pm- note- EIGHT performances only- over five days

Bookings: Computicket or call Artscape Box Office 021 4217695
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Cape Town Opera’s staging of Cinderella (an adaptation of Pauline Viardot’s 1904 chamber opera, Cendrillon), is creating a buzz amongst opera enthusiasts. This production (sung in English) has been designed with young audiences in mind but is not a children’s show. It is very much for opera aficionados- interested in seeing exciting new renderings of opera. CTO, working in association with award winning theatre company, A&M Productions (Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer) has conceptualised a cutting-edge production. The set is minimalist, stylish and sophisticated (think- transparency, shimmering mirrors, black glitter, striking lighting) and within that there are elegant, intricate and outrageous jewelled costumes, whimsical masks and headdresses. Internationally recognised, fabric engineer and designer, Phyllis Midlane was brought on board to create the opulence and fabulousness. Midlane was a key member of Handspring Puppet Company team which made the puppets for the National Theatre’s War Horse (in the UK) and has worked extensively across genres. She created the extraordinary horse puppet for A&M’s Equus in 2019- just before Covid. BBC TV, in its Sunday Feature slot [2023], has been covering the post Covid trend of New Wave Opera – which is accessible, thrilling and very much in tune with contemporary audiences and CTO’s Cinderella of innovation is understandably drawing the attention of opera enthusiasts. We must mention that this production features the world premiere of an original orchestration by Arthur Feder and Antoni Schonken and that there are only eight performances, over five days, so do not miss out. Read on for insights by Phyllis Midlane, into working on Cinderella and the fun she has had particularly in creating the masks for the ensemble of child ballet dancers who take on the roles of the menagerie of non-human characters:

TCR: Can you tell us about designing costumes, masks and headdresses, for Cinderella, with movement in mind – in terms of fabrics and materials? In doing this, have you drawn on your own past career as a professional ballet dancer? 

PM: My knowledge of the construction of costumes for dancers and the need for the freedom of movement necessary does help when producing costumes. What is not generally understood is how robust and durable costumes need to be to withstand the rigours of multiple performances. A big challenge is interpreting a designer’s drawings which don’t always show volume and fall of the garment. Another challenge is making wonders on a limited budget, and not always having the ideal materials available.

TCR: Have you worked on family friendly theatre in the past and can you talk about the challenges of creating fantasy, wonder and whimsy– in a non-threatening and fun way?

PM: I made most of the character mascots used at Ratanga Junction [theme park in Cape Town, no longer in existence] and made many other advertising creatures. I generally aim to find the most appealing, gentle and big-eyed image to avoid the scare factor. I also make enjoy making finger, glove and hand puppets – again aiming for the appeal factor. These are great tools for teaching children and in bridging the communication gap. My experience in children’s theatre is mainly with A&M productions at Canal Walk Children’s Theatre, where, again, they cater to the whimsical and to fantasy.

TCR:  How did you go about making the masks (mice, rat, two lizards and white horses)- working from two dimensional drawings – to three dimensional objects?

PM:  I cut flat and shaped panels, of monocellular rubber product, which I then glued together to create the 3D form. My experience of making garments to fit a variety of forms, helps tremendously.

TCR: I would imagine that there had to be tremendous care in creating the masks worn by the child dancers –making them fun for so that the younger contingent of the audience, won’t be scared?

PM: I worked from Marcel Meyer designs- designs of loveable creatures. There was no ‘fear’ in his designs. For instance, his mice and rats, border on Disney-like characters. The horses are more mature and elegant. I also made the giant pumpkin which is fun.

TCR:  Please tell us about how you transitioned from your career as a professional ballet dancer [CAPAB] to working as fabric engineer to this epic career, which has included working on the Handspring Puppet Company team which made the puppets for War Horse at the National Theatre in London? Where did you learn your craft as “fabric engineer”?

PM: I always made clothing and soft toys. I made my first dress, unaided at seven years old. So it was a natural side-step, for me to go into a costuming career when I retired from CAPAB. I had taught myself pattern-making but wanted to refine my technique and I attended a school in fashion design, to further my pattern-making skills. I then worked in the main wardrobe at CAPAB and was mentored by Eva Parsons. I cut for both female and male artists. I had the good fortune to work with world class designers. I have been freelance for about 33 years and have enjoyed branching into other arenas like working with the Handspring Puppet Company. They gave me the title of fabric engineer when they produced all the puppets for Warhorse, in their studios in Cape Town. Handspring’s Adrian [Kohler] is such a generous artist, sharing his knowledge and time, with such enthusiasm. Much of what I do is instinctive -and not something I have learned – or have been taught.

TCR:  Anything else to add to working on this innovative production- Cinderella?

PM: Thanks to the Cape Town Opera Company and to A&M Productions for including me in this venture.

Whimsy and fantasy: Internationally renowned, fabric engineer and designer, Phyllis Midlane has worked on making the masks for Cape Town Opera’s staging of Cinderella (an adaptation of Pauline Viardot’s 1904 chamber opera, Cendrillon). Midlane has also made some of the headdresses and a giant pumpkin. In the photo, are young ballet dancers from The Waterfront Theatre School. They take on the role of the non-human creatures in the menagerie in Cinderella. Supplied.

✳ Images supplied. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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