What Makes Cinderella (Cinde)Really?

With a vibrantly modern look, Cinderella brought humor and light-heartedness to the Lyric Opera stage. I was enthusiastic for the magic of the performance, but left thinking a lot about adaptation.

lyric opera cinderella

Rossini’s Opera hits the major plot points of Cinderella, with some slight changes from the story I was most familiar with. The stepmother is a stepfather, the shoe is a bracelet, and we didn’t get the payout of a grand ball, just a fancy intimate dinner.

As for the show itself, Lawrence Brownlee stole the show as the prince. The chemistry between him and Isabel Leonard was sweet and endearing. But when he sang the big aria in Act II, “Si, ritrovarla io giuro,” it brought the house down. In the scene, he gets into the set piece of a carriage that flipped over from the panels of the courtyard set. He came around the back and popped out the window of the carriage to a grand finish. This moment was the climax of the show for me. The right amount of flash, surprise and emotional longing. (These were things that were somewhat lacking with the simplicity of the staging, it felt like Brownlee put the production on his back and lifted it up at this point).

Here’s a great video of Brownlee singing “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” in 2009. The way he sings the ornamentation is so rich and full, and even more impressive in real life.

From the LA Opera production

Same Carriage set from the LA Opera production

But what is Cinderella in Opera, really? 

I also got my butt up early two weekends ago to commute down to Humanities Day at my alma mater, UChicago. (Luckily there was plenty of coffee and interesting ideas flying around)

The keynote speaker for the day was David Levin who aptly discussed opera in modern life. He used the example of an interpretation of Strauss’ Elektra (Zurich, 2005). We’re developing a new vocabulary for opera with today’s technology that shies away from “blanket celebration or denunciation.”

The format of how opera is being consumed is changing with technology, the MET streaming in movie theaters around the country, home dvds, pbs, youtube. Not to mention all the competition with Netflix etc., to get people in theaters to see Opera is somewhat of a feat.

The Lyric Opera modernized the stage design and costuming. The masks on the mice were nice and the way the carriage was portrayed through the set and then again as a miniature added a dynamic element to the production. But other than that, it was just Cinderella.

Cinderella is a name that people are familiar with. And a Rossini comedy, great! People will buy tickets for it based on name alone. But if there’s one thing we can agree upon, our gut reaction is that Elektra has much more potential emotionally and psychosocially than Cinderella based on libretto alone.

Some stories are better than others. And some stories sell better than others. 


But how do we really see Cinderella?

Barbara Herrnstein Smith has some things to say about the narrative form of Cinderella and its variations in her “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories.” We use the term “Cinderella Story” loosely from Superbowl wins, to a happy children’s book. Hernstein-Smith argues that “no narrative can be independent of a particular teller and occasion of telling” which is why Cinderella is a perfect example because it is a story that is an abstraction without one root story of origin that adaptations follow, but rather, many unique interpretations that share qualities. Performing arts performance is unique because each staging is a different telling for a different audience.

How does this translate visually? Visual signifiers are something I’ve been thinking a lot about with Halloween! How do you minimally signify you are dressed as a character? A good example of this is, if I were to dress as Taylor Swift, what would be required for me to pull it off? Likely, blonde hair. But in her latest music video for wildest dreams, she is brunette. We still know this is Taylor Swift without her signature hair color. That’s because of her face, her voice, lots of other signifiers that make it immediately obvious. But if I was to dress as Taylor swift in wildest dreams, without the blonde hair, you would have no idea who I was supposed to be. If I was to dress up as a princess and wear a blue dress, I think it’s likely people would guess Cinderella right away. If I dressed up as Cinderella in her rag look, people would know. But say I wore a pink dress, would the first guess be Cinderella? That’s how ingrained in our minds Hollywood has cemented this simplistic image. What about things we can’t control as much, hair color, skin color? How far are we willing to recognize that a character is Cinderella?

In pop culture, it’s interesting how Disney seems to have completely taken over our perception of Cinderella.

paperdolls

To interpret this adaptation, I decided to make my own display with standing paper doll cut-outs of Cinderella. Paper dolls were kind of passe at the turn of the century, though they were more widely used in teaching magazines (read about paper doll history). I think these types of paper displays go a long way in educational settings. They are visual and kinesthetic and develop story with spacial reasoning.

I wondered what characters in different interpretations of Cinderella looked like and what would appear when compared to each other.  I cut out pictures of Cinderella and the prince from different western interpretations of the story, Disney Cinderella, Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella, “La Cenerentola” by the lyric opera  and by the MET in 2014.

mixed couples

The people playing the characters are of different ages and races. I expected great differences in style, but all the adaptations had a bluish white ball gown. Considering all the interpretations took place after the Disney movie, this can’t be a coincidence. That is how we picture the Cinderella look, it’s what registers for us when someone says Cinderella.
The costume director for the Disney live-action remake this year, Sandy Powell had some comments on her choice of the blue dress. “I then went through every other color and then I thought well it could be white, but, no it can’t be that because we have a wedding scene to do later and that really should really be the light colored dress. After that I kind of got a bit stuck on thinking green would be wrong, yellow would be wrong, red would be wrong.  I came back to blue because it actually is the most attractive color and it just seemed appropriate.  Then of course it went back to the fact that the original one is blue.  And then once I’ve come to that conclusion I realized there’s no way in the world I could have made it any color other than blue because it just is.  Cinderella’s ball gown is blue.  And I think there would have been like millions of little girls around the world like horribly disappointed or telling me I’ve done it wrong.” (Read more)
Why has this element become so quintessential for our vision of Cinderella today? A classic story with so many variations, yet after the Disney movie, we are almost unwavering that the one thing that makes Cinderella cinderella visually, is a big blue ball gown. Out of all of the possibilities for adaptations of Cinderella, there are many exciting interesting options that satisfy the telling to audiences today, but one surprising detail that we passionately resound with is that dress.
Low and behold,  "the dress" is actually white!

Low and behold, “the dress” is actually white!

Cinderella closed last week, but the Lyric has a lot of other programs this season! I’m particularly excited for Romeo and Juliet, another frequently adapted tale. Check that out this February and March! We’ll see what is essential in making Romeo and Juliet.

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