Glass Slippers and Stepsisters: Opera Opens Cinderella

The Kentucky Opera continues its 60th anniversary season this week with a company premiere of the timeless fairy tale “Cinderella.” Directed by John de los Santos and conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, Jules Massenet’s romantic comic opera plays Friday evening and Sunday afternoon in the Brown Theatre.

While Massenet’s original opera was composed in French, Kentucky Opera will perform in English. 

Happily Ever After

This adaptation of the fairy tale isn’t the only Cinderella opera (Rossini’s “La Ceneretola” is well-known), but it is perhaps the most faithful to the version of the folktale that American audiences know.

The king throws a ball to find a mate for his son, the prince, who desperately wants to fall in love. While her social-climbing stepmother and wicked stepsisters get dolled up for the big party, beautiful Cinderella is left at home to sweep out the hearth. 

Here’s a short preview of “Cinderella” from WUOL’s Lunchtime Classics series, recorded live in the Louisville Public Media performance studio. “Try to look your best tonight!” and “Come on, let us go.”

A fairy arrives and transforms her into a mysterious princess type for the evening, outfitting her with a ballgown, the iconic glass slippers and a midnight curfew. The glass slippers eventually reveal Cinderella’s true identity to Prince Charming, who became smitten with the mysterious beauty at the ball. 

Kentucky Opera general director David Roth says Massenet based this opera on “Cendrillon,” a fairy tale first published in Charles Perrault’s 17th century French collection “Contes de Ma Mère l’Oye”—or as we now know it, “Tales of Mother Goose.” 

“This is the same version that inspired Walt Disney’s version of his 1950 special animated film,” says Roth.

Who Wears the Pants

But the production, with libretto by Henri Caïn, is an opera, so it plays by slightly different staging rules. Ariana Chris, a mezzo-soprano, will sing the role of Cinderella. Another mezzo-soprano, Claire Shackleton, will play the part of Prince Charming. In opera, this is known as a “pants role,” when a male part is written for a woman’s voice. Roth says the pants role is an old opera composition trick.

“Like Mozart before him, and later Richard Strauss, Massenet utilized the color and register of the mezzo-soprano voice to give the illusion of a youthful-sounding Prince Charming, while matching that with the power of a mature instrument to sound out over the orchestra,” says Roth. 

Let’s Dance

Director de los Santos began his career as a dancer and choreographer, skills he drew on in staging this production. Roth says “Cinderella” is a fluid piece with a lyricism that lends itself, if not to outright choreography, at least to a heightened sense of movement. 

“I think a lot of that has to do with the costumes. The costume period we’re going to do this in is kind of a late Elizabethan, early Jacobean, where the women have these large farthingale skirts out to here with big collars, so that dictates a lot of it,” says de los Santos.

“Also because there are so many tunes in this piece, there’s not a boring stretch in it,” he adds. “So the whole thing lends itself to movement and whimsical action. The whole cast will tell you, they don’t sit still at all.” 

The King’s ball is a dance scene itself, but de los Santos points out that Massenet also wrote many ballet sections into the score. 

(“It is French, after all,” adds Roth.)

The ballet sections allow the performers to stretch their movement skills, an opportunity de los Santos says most singers relish.

“We don’t have a corps de ballet here, we have the chorus and the principals doing all the dance, so they’ve had to learn a lot of period movement and dance styles,” says de los Santos. 

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