You can't turn a corner in this town without tripping over a fairy-tale princess, and few are as fatiguingly over-familiar as Cinderella, the heroine whose castle our region's theme park industry was built around. But if you think you've already heard the story of the glass slippers and wicked stepmother, you don't know La Cenerentola, which the Orlando Opera presents tonight through Sunday, March 25, at the Dr. Phillips Center's Alexis and Jim Pugh Theater. Not only does Gioachino Rossini's 1817 opera invert the genders of key characters, but this production represents the local directorial debut of Ophelie Wolf, who is bringing a fresh female perspective into a traditionally male-dominated art form.
Ten days before opening night, Opera Orlando invited me to their rehearsal space at the Plaza Live to eavesdrop on their artistic process. As I arrived, the cast was preparing to work through a scene, so costume designer Charles Caine – a veteran, along with hair and makeup designer Steven Horak, of the Metropolitan Opera – showed me some of the sumptuous dresses he's assembled for the show.
"This is a relatively simple opera with a small cast," Caine says, "but there's so many details that the audience enjoys looking at from the front of the house. They don't realize what goes into it, how many pieces."
Next, I watched as bass-baritone Tony Dillon, playing the wicked stepfather (not mother) Don Magnifico, and his "daughters," Samantha Barnes Daniel and Sarah Purser, marked through "Sia qualunque delle figlie," the tongue-twisting Act 2 opener with a syllable-per-second count that puts Hamilton to shame. "It took me a month to be able to read it, let alone say it," Dillon whispers to me as he catches his breath.
Soon, it was time for the cast to take a break, during which Wolf shared with me the story of her journey from Germany, where she was born, through her studies in London at King's College and New York at the Juilliard School, up to her current career as a freelance international opera director. Her father was a concertmaster and she "grew up around rehearsals, coloring when people were singing," but she didn't work on her first opera until after college. Originally an aspiring actress, she had difficulty landing roles because she looked too young, so she went into directing instead.
Wolf is now 29 (though she could pass for 19), but she hasn't let her youth stop her from quickly rising in the ranks of opera directors.
"I try just not to make it an issue," she says. "If you start being aware of it too much yourself, it will become an issue because you'll start being insecure about it." And while she says gender issues have impacted her "less in work than in life," she does feel that "many of our preconceived notions about opera are due to the fact that pieces have mainly been directed by men."
Watching Wolf work with her cast, I was struck by her focus on the characters' emotions for motivating the singers' movement, as opposed to merely striking aesthetically pleasing poses.
"How people move on stage shows power relations, it shows who is in charge of the situation," Wolf explains. "I will catch myself empowering Cinderella [played by mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider] much more than other directors might ... I'm here to be true to the story, but I'm a female artist and I try wherever I can to show strong women."
As a European and self-described tomboy, Wolf says she's "blissfully ignorant" of the Disney film that's ingrained in American culture, and Rossini's take on the tale omits the iconic slipper and all other magical elements in favor of a realistic retelling.
"You shouldn't walk away thinking 'That's a fairy tale, that was nice," says Wolf. "All aspects of the story, including the uncomfortable parts, are things that happen in reality." Her favorite non-Disney twist is Cinderella's insistence that Prince Ramiro (tenor Javier Abreu) see her as a servant before they wed. "There's that idea of love being about seeing the reality of the other, which it truly beautiful and unique to this specific version of the story."
Wolf will soon be off on her next globetrotting gig, but she says her experience at Opera Orlando has been great, adding that she's "amazed at the growth of the company, and the level of creativity they're able to bring in at this stage of the game. ... Everybody's been really helpful, really on-board, and wonderfully professional." Hopefully she'll leave behind some of her optimism for the future of opera, which she calls "real stories for real people ... and don't we all love a good story?"