Tue. Nov 12th, 2019

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Don’t Wish, Do It Yourself

9 min read
don’t-wish,-do-it-yourself

Opera need not be opulent to be marvelous. Opera del West, helmed by Eve Budnick, brings fully staged—if fringe—opera to the Metro West area of Massachusetts and provides a space for young professional singers to tackle exciting roles. Between August 9 and 11, the company, under the insightful direction of Rebecca Miller Kratzer, picked up their ladders, tulle, and sparkly shoulder pads and transported their production of Cendrillon, by Jules Massenet, to the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA).

While the story of Cinderella naturally conjures images of curlicue carriages, lavish dresses, and a grand staircase, Opera del West’s community-oriented ethos is antithetical to the grandeur we expect from this classical art form. When Massenet’s romantic opera premiered in 1899, it certainly was accompanied by frills, flounces, gilt cornices, and beaucoup de spectacle. Here, pared-back staging achieved Opera del West’s mission of highlighting up-and-coming performers in roles they may not have access to within larger houses. The aesthetic, born out of necessity but fostered by creativity, brought to life a world that seemed handmade and in process. When a production trusts an audience to use their imaginations, it allows space for performance-goers to engage in a type of magic our society does not encourage in adults. Whereas spectacle displays the intense imaginative power of a few for an impressive effect, minimalism invites us all to collaborate in the process of storytelling. Today, we continually fill up on visual stimulation; this Cendrillon showed that the stage can offer a therapeutic space for re-engaging the mind’s eye.

In the BCA’s black box, the singers were required to use space wisely, to practice restraint, and to act as much as they sang; under Kratzer’s guidance, each character shone within the collective. I admit that I am new to the form, and I will not dare analyze the musical performances beyond what is readily apparent to my ear. Having worked with Krazter on a play in 2018, I was eager to experience her version of a classic fairy-tale opera. She was kind enough to provide me with insights on methods and inspiration.

Her vision for the project used ensemble, intuition, and fairy tale tropes as guides for the design, characterizations, and approach to development. Kratzer drew inspiration from Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book Women Who Run with Wolves, which, according to its book jacket, examines the idea that “within every woman there lives a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing…who represents the instinctual nature of women.” Through this lens, Kratzer found ways to enhance and complicate the well-known characters of Cinderella, in part by drawing from other similar archetypes. This Cendrillon alluded to the dark subconscious, the gory aspects of womanhood, and the bone-bright mystery of transformation.

Vasilisa the Beautiful,” a Russian fairy tale about a young girl tormented by her stepmother and stepsisters, became a guiding force in the design and character work of Cendrillon. Vasilisa is sent into the woods where she endures the trials set for her by Baba Yaga the Witch, is rewarded, and ultimately marries a king. Rather than a fairy godmother, Vasilisa has a doll given to her by her birth mother, which comes to life to assist her in her trials. Kratzer added the doll character to the show as a dance role, played by Trysten Reynolds.

This character was part of the answer to the director’s question: “If Cendrillon could be guided by her intuition, what might happen if we saw that intuition come to life through dance and movement?” While Cendrillon—also known as Lucette—doubts herself for much of the play, the audience could not help but know that performer Jennifer Jaroslavsky, with her warm soprano and shining face, singing with heart and skill, would be able to see herself through her travails.

Whereas spectacle displays the intense imaginative power of a few to impressive effect, minimalism invites us all to collaborate in the process of storytelling.

At the top of the show, Lucette entered with a handmade doll, which sprang to life, connecting the audience to her psyche and proving that the ordinary can become the mystical. Reynolds, as the Spirit of the Doll, accompanied Jaroslavsky’s waves of emotions like an instrument, sometimes soaring alongside the melody and sometimes providing a counterpoint to show the difference between what Lucette’s heart felt and the actions available to her. This dynamic was most poignant in the first tableau of act four, when Lucette’s father (lovable, boisterous Craig Juricka) tells her he is determined for them to move to a distant land, leaving behind his overbearing wife, which means leaving the prince Lucette has fallen for behind too. Lucette manages a smile for her careworn father, but the doll crumpled on the floor, ready to weep. At times, their dynamic reminded me of a child in therapy using a puppet to express her feelings. It was clear that this magic was a temporary support, not a long-term solution, to Lucette’s need to grow into herself and to escape this unhappy home.

Reynolds and fellow dance captain Luisamaria Hernandez (who played a spirit), led performers in the creation of “movement vocabularies,” which became pieces within scenes and transitions. Krazter and her captains drew from Viewpoints, as well as the work of Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, and Agnes de Mille. The choice to replace the traditional ballet sequences of Cendrillon with modern dance and Viewpoints made room for strangeness, awkwardness, and comedy to be part of the characters’ physicality in ways that ballet, with its emphasis on extension and weightlessness, cannot match. de Mille’s influence was particularly evident in Reynolds’ movement as the doll, both graceful and jerky without becoming mechanical. Duncan’s influence was felt in the ensemble’s work with gauzy fabric as fairy spirits and in their stately Grecian posture as princesses at the ball, while the symbiotic clumps the spirits made in the forest recalled Graham’s masterful use of levels. Cutting the ballet was a resourceful use of time and space, which also allowed new, exciting ideas to bear fruit (the MET’s 2017 production ran three hours and fifteen minutes while Opera del West’s ran only two).

The floor was quite full already, with the orchestra set onstage. A viola, violonello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, keyboard, and two violins were separated from the singers only by the arching black silhouette of a tree. Budnick as conductor, in silver sparkling heels, stood before them like a commanding fairy, guiding her young and capable musicians in their magic-making. Two ladders served as bookcases, entryways, trees, and whatever else the actors needed as they moved between settings. Ladders were a clever choice; they helped create levels without obstructing sightlines. Metaphorically, they reference the social climbing of the stepsisters (Aurora Martin as Noémie and Katelyn Thompson as Dorothée) and stepmother (Suzanna Guzman) as well as Lucette’s demoted social status. Rather than forgetting altogether that I was watching an opera, I felt that I was party to this make-believe, watching the musicians under Budnick’s wand and smiling at the ingenuity of a carriage made from seven servants.

I was not alone in enjoying the meta aspects of this production: when a forest spirit (part of the fairy godmother, or La Fée’s, tribe) climbed the ladder on stage left and turned the moon around to reveal a clock, the audience cooed in recognition and delight. This clever set piece was rich in the type of metaphor Pinkola Estés explores in Women Who Run with Wolves. The moon is in fact a time tracker, one that relates directly to women’s cycles, whereas the twenty-four-hour day, which rules our clocks, relates to the male cycle. Uniting the time measurements of the moon and the clock is deeply poetic, uniting the masculine and feminine, and calling upon time’s relativity. For Lucette and Prince Charmant, one night apart may feel like a month, one month together like no more than an hour. Lucette, like many fairy-tale damsels, is on the cusp of womanhood; her transformation comes to its full fruition when she dons her ball gown, which is silver on top but dyed red from the hips down. Liam Corley’s lighting design emphasized red tones, furthering the show’s visual connection to a woman’s cycle.

La Fée, in paint-spattered jean overalls, waved a long-handled paintbrush from atop a silver ladder beside the moon, directing the forest spirits to her whims.

Corley also drew from “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” In that story, night and day are brought on by horsemen who gallop through the woods; the Black Rider carries night, the White Rider the moon, and the Red Rider sunrise. Cendrillon’s costumes and lighting used this stark color palette, which is so deeply archetypal (in Snow White, the Queen wishes for a daughter with hair black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood). In this version, the stepsisters’ feet were not sliced to fit into the shoe, but the employment of primal colors referenced the possibility for violence inherent in fairy tales and in transformation.

It was hard to dislike the stepsisters and stepmother due to the sheer fun Martin, Katelyn Thompson, and Guzman provided. Apart from leaving Lucette at home when they prance off to the ball, the stepsisters do not directly torment her in this production. I suspected that if the overbearing stepmother left for a few weeks, Lucette and her stepsisters would be swapping clothes and sharing secrets. Martin and Thompson were perfect compliments in their soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, echoing their mother’s sentiments in unison, bickering with each other, scrambling for the spotlight, and falling in line more awkwardly than Madame de la Haltière would like. Martin’s haughty Noémie high-stepped like a baby giraffe learning to walk. Thompson displayed an acrobatic acuity for slapstick and clownish expressions. Guzman, as the leader of this pack, commanded with authority. She tickled the audience with impeccable comedic timing, knowing just when to arch an eyebrow or deliver a knowing smirk.

The inventive, resourceful costuming by Rachel Belleman and Lizzie Milanovitch reflected the hard work of maintaining Madame de la Haltière’s household. Transmutations within a stark color palette of black, white, and red turned performers into servants, fairy spirits, and nobles. The gauze and black fabric used as set dressing also helped transform characters in the blink of an eye. Lucette wore a black-and-white patchwork skirt that could have been sewn from scraps of leftover cloth. Sulgi Cho as La Fée, in paint-spattered jean overalls, waved a long-handled paintbrush from atop a silver ladder beside the moon, directing the forest spirits to her whims.

The influence of Vasilisa was felt in the relationship between Lucette and La Fée. To me, the dynamic between Cendrillon and her fairy godmother is most interesting when the wand does not do all the work; Lucette learns, through the godmother’s guidance, instruction, and—yes—a bit of magic, how to transform herself. In Massenet’s opera, according to Kratzer, “the Fée is more like the Baba Yaga who tests Vasilisa rather than the Westernized Fairy Godmother.” In her overalls, she embodied the work necessary for transformation. Despite her dressed-down appearance, Cho’s masterful performance carried all of the magic the part calls for. Her coloratura soprano rang like silver bells in the wind; her trills flitted from note to note with the effortlessness of a hummingbird. Mysterious and mischievous, Cho’s La Fée stood in her power as a creator and as leader of a group of magical women.

Between Rebecca Miller Kratzer, Eve Budnick, Jennifer Jaroslavsky, Sulgi Cho, Trysten Reynolds, and Suzanna Guzman, this do-it-yourself production was full of powerful women leading a group of peers with class, panache, creativity, and cooperation. Of all the Cinderellas I have encountered, Jaroslavsky’s is the most in tune with her own intuition and the most connected to other women who help encourage her. A crowd of fairies; kindly, if beleaguered, household servants; a magic doll; and even the prince (a soprano de sentiment pants role played with appropriate melancholy by JoAnna Pope) were there to be a shoulder for her to cry on or a carriage to literally carry her to the ball. Singers, musicians, and audience alike participated in creating the vision and the product in a way that traditional operatic set pieces, costumes, and staging would hinder. Opera del West’s Cendrillon, like Pinkola Estés’ book, reminded audiences to listen to the wild howl inside each of us, whether it be soprano or baritone.

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