March 26, 2023
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Life & Culture

Main Stage combines music with magic in fairy tale opera

A fairy godmother, La Fée, draped in metallic teal robes stands center stage. “Bring to me all your tricks and graces!” she sings in French, her voice reaching across the Hoerner Theatre. Beyond her, furry forest nymphs sneak out of the shadows like smog. The creatures surround a sleeping woman, Cendrillon, who rests in a chair to the right of the stage.

“She will be the loveliest and the most admired! Oh, my little Cendrillon!”

As Cendrillon awakens, the nymphs greet her with smiles and song. As the nymphs sing along with the fairy godmother, they begin to transform the tattered woman into a proper princess, with plenty of classic “Cinderella” blue. Red and pink flower petals are scattered on her dress, and behind her, a wooden carriage is constructed.

This scene, which may sound familiar to those who know Disney’s “Cinderella,” is featured in “Cendrillon,” the spring opera at Ithaca College’s Main Stage Theater. This French opera, composed by Jules Massenet, is based on Charles Perrault’s 1698 version of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. While names, language and many other visual elements have been modified, the opera rings true to the classic fairy tale.

The leads in the opera are double-cast, meaning there are two performers playing the same role, depending on the date of the performance. Cendrillon will be played by graduate student Rebecca Guderian and junior Nicolette Nordmark. The prince will be played by seniors Catherine Barr and Bergen Price.

Guderian plays Cendrillon in the opera held in Dillingham’s Hoerner Theatre. It is based on Charles Perrault’s version of “Cinderella.” (Catie Ihrig/The Ithacan)

The traditional story of Cinderella addresses abusive and non-supportive home environments, but “Cendrillon” digs deeper, Guest Stage Director Erik Pearson said via email. Pearson said the opera has undertones that shatter the stigma of a “nuclear family,” specifically between Cendrillon and her father, Pandolfe.

“Pandolfe and Cendrillon begin the show with a clear lack of power in their current situation,” Pearson said. “They come from a less prosperous background both socially and economically. The moments where the two regain footing and have self-realization are critical representation for those who suffer from these environments in real life.”

This version of the Cinderella story focuses on the contrast between city life with societal pressures and rural life associated with freedom, Pearson said.

“The stepsisters are forced to dress up to woo a husband, the prince must conform to his father’s expectations and Cendrillon yearns for the happier life she once lived on the farm,” Pearson said. “I think many of us today can relate to the struggle to balance pressures of modern urban living with a desire for time spent in nature.”

The opera is performed in French, but English subtitles will be provided for viewers above the stage.

Senior Samantha Hurley is the opera’s dramaturg, an individual in charge of conducting background research for plays and operas. She said in an email that because “Cendrillon” is an adaptation of Perrault’s adaptation, there are certain aspects of the story that can be explored or expanded on.

“Perrault wrote ‘The Little Glass Slipper’ in 1697,” Hurley said. “He was the first one to introduce elements like the pumpkin, the glass shoe and the fairy godmother to the story of Cinderella. Unlike the Disney version, a huge character in ‘Cendrillon’ is Cinderella’s father, Pandolfe.”

Senior Marshall Pokrentowski, one of the performers of Pandolfe, said over email that his character struggles to navigate between the two worlds he lives in — his old life with Cendrillon, and the newer, oppressive atmosphere he married into. Pokrentowski said his favorite part of the opera is when Pandolfe and Cendrillon sing a duet in the second half of the show.

“When Pandolfe finally stands up to his wife and her nasty stepdaughters … Pandolfe and Cendrillon share a very poignant duet,” Pokrentowski said via email. “The beautiful music complements the simplicity of the staging and creates a very emotional scene.”

Senior Magdalyn Chauby, who plays fairy godmother La Fée, said via email that the opera offers a positive message compared to the frequency of negative media.

Senior Magdalyn Chauby plays the fairy godmother La Fée in “Cendrillon.” (Catie Ihrig/The Ithacan)

“There are many movies and shows that want to be taken seriously and attempt to do that through gritty, dark themes,” Chauby said. “I just think that it is refreshing to revisit an old fairy tale that is full of hope and positivity.”

Christopher Zemliauskas, assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies, is the music director of “Cendrillon.” In opera, the music director is responsible for all musical elements, like familiarizing the performers with the music and conducting the orchestra.

Since the opera premiered in 1899, it contains musical characteristics of late French romanticism, like shifting vocal melodies and tempos. For some student performers who worked closely with Zemliauskas, including Pokrentowski, this was a challenge.

“There is also a large amount of very fast language both in solo and ensemble singing,” Pokrentowski said. “There are several places in the score where I have needed to get a metronome and speak through the text at a slow tempo, gradually increasing until I could perform it spoken at the correct speed.”

Chauby, who is taking on “Cendrillon” as her first-ever opera, agreed that vocal shifts in tempo were not easy, especially with so many other things to distract her.

“I think the biggest challenge as an undergrad performer is keeping your vocal technique the main focus, even as different things are layered into the production,” she said.

However, Pearson said the cast of singers is hungry to collaborate, and their preparedness has benefited the short time span they were given to practice.

“We’ve had only have three weeks of staging rehearsals to put up an opera that is over two hours long, so it’s been really helpful to have a group that is prepared, eager to collaborate and smart enough to make things work without a lot of handholding,” he said.

In addition to the stylistic challenges, Pearson said there are technical struggles built into the libretto, the text used in opera. Because the chorus is constantly transforming between various groups household servants, ball guests and magical forest spirits the design and production students had to put a lot of work into the visual elements in the opera.

“Everyone has done a wonderful job, and I think audiences are going to find the results thrilling,” Pearson said.

Chauby said she recognizes that theater can have an impact on its viewers. The themes present in the show are applicable to many college students, she said.

“I aspire that ‘Cendrillon’ serves as a source of hope to this campus, and that those who need a beacon of positivity can find it in the world we are creating,” Chauby said.

“Cendrillon” will be performed in the Hoerner Theatre from Feb. 21 to March 3.


*Editor’s note: This article previously misidentified one of the actresses playing the role of Cendrillon.