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 Artscape Opera House. Evening performances are on July 4, 6,7 and 8 at 7pm, with matinees on July 5, 6 and 8 at 2pm

Bookings: Computicket or call Artscape Box Office 021 4217695
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A major and much anticipated theatre event, this winter is Cape Town Opera’s Cinderella, a trailblazing adaption of Pauline Viardot’s chamber opera, Cendrillon (Cinderella).  This is the first time that Cape Town Opera is staging a full length opera by a female composer and she made the Stepmother into a Stepfather which gives a delicious spin to the popular fairy-tale. How cool is that.  This production (sung in English) is family friendly, with ballet, glitter, minimalist set and costumes and features mask creatures and headdresses made by Phyllis Midlane who was a key member of the team which built the horses for Handspring/National Theatre production of War Horse. CTO’s Cinderella marks the world-premiere of a new orchestration by Arthur Feder and Antoni Schonken. They have arranged Viardot’s music for a chamber orchestra of eight musicians. A&M Productions (Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer] have worked in association with Cape Town Opera, in waving fairy magic to create this exciting production. Marcel Meyer provides us with a peek into the production’s design and concept:

TCR: How have you gone about adapting Cendrillon, a 1905 opera, by Pauline Viardot,, as Cinderella, for 2023 South Africa, with family audiences in mind?

MM: Opera is one of the most incredible forms of live entertainment. It is the ultimate synthesis of spectacle, story-telling and sublime music. Opera can transport audiences to the most incredible worlds by engaging so many of our senses both visual and aural.  Opera really is the total package. Sadly, people sometimes feel intimidated by this wonderful art form, often because they think they might not understand it, as opera is often sung in a foreign language. A major aim in presenting Cinderella this season was to use it as a calling card to introduce new audiences to all the splendours that opera has on offer – especially young audiences. We can all recall that moment we fell in love with the performing arts – that first trip to the circus, or the panto, or a ballet or musical. Our hope is that this production can make a whole new audience fall in love with opera while at the same time offering converted opera lovers the unique opportunity of seeing the South African premiere of this rarely performed masterpiece – and a historic one at that – this is the first time Cape Town Opera is presenting a full-length opera composed by a female composer. So, there is a lot to celebrate – and patrons attending will be able to say “we were there when…”

TCR: Insights into the process of adapting the libretto – and bringing opera and theatre (and ballet) together?

MM: Opera by its very nature aims to bring together all the elements of the arts, striking visuals, heart-stopping drama, side-splitting comedy, magnificent music and often dance. So, this collaboration is just a natural extension of opera’s multi-faceted nature. In adapting the libretto, the aim was to make this opera accessible to as broad an audience as possible and to have the entire text sung and spoken in English. Fred [Abrahamse] and I did the initial adaptation, attempting to dramaturgically enhance the original libretto. Fred focused mainly on the spoken sections while I worked on the sung sections. Once we had a workable draft in place, our musical director and conductor, José Dias, joined the writing team to further refine the sung sections of the text.

TCR: What is different with Cendrillon –as opposed to the usual Cinderella that we know? From what I gather, Pauline Viardot’s major alteration to the traditional story (based on Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy-tale) is to give Cendrillon a stepfather rather than a step-mother?

MM: For the most part Viardot remained relatively close to the familiar telling of the story. All the key moments that people love in the original fairy-tale are present in her operatic adaptation. Viardot’s inventions include changing the Stepmother into a Stepfather, and having the Prince in disguise for most of the opera. At its core, Viardot’s Cinderella, is an exploration of identity and the knowledge that true beauty, kindness and compassion come from within and that the key to happiness lies in our ability to look with our hearts, rather than our eyes.

TCR: Can you tell us about shape shifting and fun in this opera and how not everyone is what they seem?

MM: Almost everyone in this opera is not what they seem. The prince disguises himself first as a beggar, then as his valet. The Prince’s valet masquerades as his master at the ball. Cinderella’s stepfather came from a very humble background before he married into his title, so a humble baker’s son is now a baron, and his daughters are living like noble ladies, while the noble born Cinderella is living like a scullery maid. Mice transform into horses, lizards into footmen. A rat becomes a coachman and a pumpkin transforms into a magnificent coach.

TCR: Insights please into the set/design concept of this production? You mentioned that the audience will feel that it is walking into a soiree? There will be a black glittered stage, large mirror, transparent furniture and props, raised orchestra pit- so the sense is walking into a magical wonderland?

MM: Correct. The aim of the scenic design is to create as opulent and elegant an environment for this familiar tale to unfold in while visually interrogating Viardot’s prominent theme of identity. Therefore, the central scenic element is an enormous mirror which serves as a large reflective backdrop to the entire opera. The mirror will allow the audience to see the opera in a double vision, simultaneously seeing the actual singers and dancers along with their reflections.

TCR: Insights into the costume design?

MM: The costume design for this production sets out to complement the uncluttered elegance of the scenic design by being richly ornamented, textured and lush. So that all our focus is pulled toward the bodies on stage. The opera questions: Does what we wear determine who we truly are?  The palette for the costumes is a mixture of silver, grey, white, and black along with shimmering and glittering jewels and beaded fabrics. In contrast, the Stepsisters and the Baron are decked out in outrageous costumes and wigs in gaudily fabulous fabrics and colours. The centerpiece of the costume design are Cinderella’s tattered rags that transform before our eyes into a magnificent ball gown.

TCR: How have you used the masks to create the creatures into the production?

MM: One of the many wonderful things about producing Cinderella for the stage is bringing to life the many wonderful creatures that form part of the story, the white mice, the rat, the two lizards and of course the fabulous white horses who pull the magnificent pumpkin carriage. From the moment we embarked on this project I knew I wanted our long-time collaborator, Phyllis Midlane, to build the various masks. Phyllis has built several creatures for us for our various fairy tale musicals at Canal Walk, as well as the exquisite horses for our 2019 production of Equus. Phyllis was also an integral member of the team which built the horses for the Handspring/National Theatre productions of War Horse, and yet again she has done a brilliant job in bringing all the non-human characters to life on Cinderella.

TCR: Was ballet part of the original Cendrillon or is this an innovation for this production?

MM: No, ballet was never part of the original staging of Cendrillon. The original production had to keep everything to its absolute essentials because it was staged in a very intimate setting with very limited resources. Our production is being staged on the opera house stage, so this has allowed us to vastly expand on the original. In French Grand Opera, the inclusion of ballet was de rigueur. Because our production is set during the glory years of French Grand Opera [the late 1820s and early 1830s] it seemed fitting to incorporate ballet into this production as a homage to this opulent Parisian school of operatic production.

TCR: Where is this production set?

MM: The production is set “Once upon a time in a far away kingdom” which bears a passing resemblance to Paris during the final days of the Bourbon Monarchy’s restoration shortly before the 1830 revolution so famously recalled in Les Misérables. But the production remains first and foremost a fantasy and a fairy-tale where benevolent Fairy Godmothers can transform pumpkins into glittering coaches and four white mice into four white horses.

TCR: Is it a sung through opera or is there talk between the songs? I am asking this as I think parents will want to know how the story is conveyed for the kids and if they will understand it as it is an opera.

MM: Viardot’s Cinderella can be classified, as the French would, as an Opéra-Comiqué, a type of French opera where spoken dialogue alternates with sung sections. This production of Cinderella therefore does have extended spoken scenes linking the various arias, duets and ensembles making the story very easy to follow for the younger members in the audience because every word will be spoken and sung in English.

TCR: How many voices and how many musicians will there be in your production? The opera was written for seven voices and piano?

MM: This production uses seven voices like the original but features an additional ballet ensemble and a cast of talented young children from the Waterfront Theatre School as Cinderella’s beloved menagerie of animals. This production will also be the world-premiere of a brand-new orchestration by Arthur Feder and Antoni Schonken who have arranged Viardot’s beautiful music for a chamber orchestra of eight musicians who, between them, play a whole host of instruments including strings, woodwinds, various percussion instruments and best of all a harp.

TCR: For those who are interested in the history of this opera, I have to ask about Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). She was born to a Spanish family in Paris and was the younger sister of the famous opera diva Maria Malibran. She wrote five salon operas – music and libretto. From what I understand they were staged salon style – in homes (grand homes) and were not meant to go into theatres?

MM: At the turn of the previous century, it was impossible for a female composer to get her work staged at a major opera house. That was the domain of male composers. This did not deter a passionate music-maker like Pauline Viardot from writing and composing, but in order to get her work staged she conceived them as tiny chamber pieces that could be easily mounted in private salons rather than public opera houses. Like Cinderella, Pauline Viardot’s charming 1904 salon opera has been hidden from view for over a century, patiently waiting for a fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and transport her to the ball in all her finery. That fairy godmother has arrived in the shape of Mr and Mrs Stanislas Yassukovich whose generous sponsorship has allowed Cape Town Opera to mount the South African premiere in this lavish new production on the Artscape Opera House stage.

Stepsister: The Stepsisters in Cape Town Opera’s Cinderella [Cendrillon] and the Baron [aka the Stepfather] are garbed in outrageously fabulous costumes, in contrast to the rest of the characters who are in a “mixture of silver, grey, white, and black along with shimmering and glittering jewels and beaded fabrics”, explains Marcel Meyer who has designed the costumes. Drawings supplied by Marcel Meyer.
Fairy Godmother: Glittering and shimmering. Costume design by Marcel Meyer, for Cape Town Opera’s Cinderella [Cendrillon], 2023.

✳ Featured image – Marcel Meyer with some the child ballet dancers, from the Waterfront Theatre School who are performing Cape Town Opera’s in Cinderella. Pic: Annène van Eeden.

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