When the lights went up on Converse Opera Theater’s production of Cendrillon (Cinderella) during January Term, the cast was greeted by a sea of young Cinderellas and Prince Charmings as well as the more traditional opera-goers.
The opera was selected for its appeal to all ages. It was sung in English and free admission was offered to each child who came dressed as Cinderella or Prince Charming to one of the three performances. “It was an enchanting experience of soaring arias and sweeping ball gowns, where fairytales really do come true,” said director John M. Roche.
“This was a wonderful way for children to be exposed to opera, but the production was not just for them.”
“This was a wonderful way for children to be exposed to opera, but the production was not just for them,” said Roche, who has a master’s degree in vocal performance from Converse and served as artistic director for Spartanburg Repertory Company. “The aspect of the tale I love so much is that Cinderella’s kind heart triumphs in the end. I think this is a message children need to hear, because they may not hear it as often as those of us of a different generation did. Good things come to those who wait.”
In addition to providing one of the few opportunities for Upstate audiences to enjoy a fully-staged opera, Cendrillon served as a valuable training ground for students in Converse’s Petrie School of Music. It was written by Pauline Viardot, one of the 19th century’s most prominent female musicians, as a teaching tool for her students.
“The music is extremely difficult by design,” Roche explained. “Viardot was one of the great mezzo-sopranos of her time period, and her friends were the most famous people of the day: Liszt, Dickens, Brahms and Chopin, among others.”
The cast and crew were comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as Spartanburg community members.
Grace Frazor, a senior from Arlington, TX, sang the role of Cinderella. This is her fourth production with Converse Opera Theater and her first in a lead role.
“The music is fantastic, and Cendrillon is a fun character to portray,” Frazor said. “This is my first role with a romantic interest in another character. I have not had to sing a love duet before, so that is definitely a new experience.”
Lisa Louw of Greer, S.C. is cast as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. Although the junior has been performing since she was a young girl, she found new challenges in her first purely comical role.
“I’m used to portraying characters who are serious or profound in some way,” she said. “I had to work a little harder to find the complexities of my otherwise silly character and to separate my identity within the two stepsisters. This role showed me just how different performing can be when you have to come up with a lot of the who, what, when, whys using your own imagination.”
“This role showed me just how different performing can be when you have to come up with a lot of the who, what, when, whys using your own imagination.”
Roche also helped students fine tune their acting abilities. For example, learning to stay the course no matter what unfolds during the public performances.
“During our first rehearsal on stage, he reminded us that it’s o.k. for mistakes to happen,” said Louw. “He shared personal stories of when things went wrong but the actors stayed in character and adapted to what happened. Even though we were all laughing, the point was to make us aware that we should be so comfortable in our character and the overall show that we can adapt and improvise when something unexpected happens.”
Both students see Cendrillon as an excellent choice for the Petrie School’s annual opera production. “For practical reasons, it worked because it has a small, primarily female cast. The story of Cinderella is also widely known and loved, and that makes it easy to relate to, both for the performers and the audience,” Frazor said.
Roche agrees, noting that while many people think of opera as elitist, that was not the case throughout most of history. “Opera was by the people, for the people, and Cendrillon was first performed in the composer’s home. It was family entertainment.”
He adds, “Pauline Viardot composed Cendrillon when she was 84 years old. Not only does it speak to children, but it reminds all of us, ‘Never give up on your talent.’”