The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Stage director Garnett Bruce talks about updating Rossini’s opera “Cinderella” to Hollywood in the 1930s Depression for the Madison Opera.

April 23, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Opera will close its current season with its first-ever production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), which has been set in Depression-era 1930’s Hollywood.

“Cinderella” will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickers run $18-$116.

For more information, call (608) 258-4141 or visit:

Bel canto magic meets a beloved fairy tale as the beautiful maid Angelina quests for true love and the talented film director Ramiro sets out to find his next leading lady.

The production (below in a photo by Cory Weaver for Austin Lyric Opera)  features glittering sets and costumes and a cast of unforgettable characters.

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. Stage director Garnett Bruce returns to direct the lavish production, an original interpretation that incorporates showgirls, soundstage, and Busby Berkeley production numbers.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who appeared at Opera in the Park 2011, sings Angelina, the ill-treated Cinderella who dreams of happiness. Tenor Gregory Schmidt, last on the Madison Opera stage as the ghostly Peter Quint in Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” sings Don Ramiro, the weary film director at Palace Pictures Studios whose hunt for a starlet awakens his heart. Baritone Steven Condy sings Don Magnifico, the washed-up vaudevillian searching for a ticket back to stardom with his two scheming daughters. Daniel Belcher makes his Madison Opera debut as Dandini, Ramiro’s driver, who
changes places with him to great comic effect. Alan Dunbar also makes
his Madison Opera debut in the role of Alidoro, the clever studio head
at Palace Pictures.

They are joined by Jamie Van Eyck and Amy
 Mahoney as the two amusingly wicked stepsisters, Tisbe and Clorinda.

“Cinderella is one of Rossini’s most delightful operas,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith. “It’s both very funny and very genuine— we laugh at the comedy, while strongly rooting for everyone to live happily ever after. The music is full of vocal fireworks that are thrilling to hear and we have a stunning cast that makes it all sound easy.”

Stage director Garnett Bruce (below) recently agreed to talk to The Ear about his updating of the production:

Are you generally a fan of re-setting or updating operas? Why or why not? How do you think opera fans will react to what you have done?

I believe in good story telling. Sometimes, the original period is NOT helpful  (think of BALLO set in Boston, or TRAVIATA in the Baroque era) — and while this is not the case with CINDERELLA, we wanted to find a new way into the central ideas of the piece, while still honoring the text and music and structure from Rossini.

When a director has made mince-meat out of a piece, rehashing ideas and reusing music for his/her own points of view, I often wonder if that energy would be better spent writing a NEW piece rather than tinkering with someone who can no longer collaborate!  And, if the update distracts (a Planet of the Apes RIGOLETTO or Spaceship BOHEME) then we have not only failed the composer but also the audience.

I hope that our choice of 1933 Hollywood will invoke happy memories of those B&W movies for our audience, and give them a handle into Rossini’s deeper emotional music once the flash and dazzle of the patter sequences has died down.  Somehow, corsets and fans and petticoats and white wigs feel a bit formal for the fun I feel when I hear this score.  But what might have been avant-garde in 1817 is merely a passing antique in 2012.  I want the story to be invigorating.

How and why did you come up with idea of using Hollywood in the 1930s as a setting for Rossini’s “Cinderella”? Do the text and the music support that updating?

In our examination of Hollywood, I needed to balance the poverty aspect of Magnifico’s life and also find a logic for the beggar disguise that Alidoro is wearing in the first scene of the opera.  Then, realizing that IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (below, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) was filmed in 1933 (winning an Oscar in 1934), the studios were starting to move away from the dazzle of sound and extravaganza to human dramas.

Rossini is doing the same thing — and the humanity that Angelina sings in this score is as touching as anything from Mozart or Handel.  I would say 95% of the text works. We have to accept “Principe” a lot, and the “codice” of birth records gets a bit sticky — but if we got stuck on THAT, we’d miss the point of the fun, the fluidity and the point of the story:  The Triumph of Goodness.

In the Act I finale, Dandini as the “false Prince” is setting up his big event — and instead of “Andiamo a tavola” meaning the banquet, we make it refer to nightclub tables in the movie set.  No big deal.

Does Rossini’s own life – early retirement at 37 as a rich star composer, years of decadence and self-indulgence in Paris – play any part in making the revised setting a natural match or choice?

In 1817, Rossini (below) must have had a joie de vivre, but was only a fledgling success — many projects and commissions, but still unknown outside Italy.  BARBIERE would propel him to worldwide acclaim, but by 1817, that hadn’t quite happened.  So he was working VERY fast to be clever, to be charming, to be innovative – and retain his humanity.

By 1820-21 when the production was revived (with a better aria for Alidoro written by Rossini himself instead of an assistant), he was well on his way to being the toast of Europe.  But he didn’t tinker with CENERENTOLA or BARBER too much — confident in his early choices.

So, we took a confident approach to our visuals — and bringing B&W movies to color, we opted for bold statements to make the contrast between the dilapidated, soon-to-be-forgotton vaudeville world of Magnifico and the slick silver screen of Palace Pictures  (helping us at least reference “Palazzo” throughout the score !).

Is the Hollywood setting also apropos because the “fairy tale” story of so many movie stars and people who start out ordinary and then get discovered and make big in Hollywood is itself a kind of Cinderella tale? How is the Depression-era relevant and does it have anything to do with the recent Great Recession?

I certainly think movie magic and being “discovered” and made a star is as great a parallel as one might find between the fairy tale and our American history.  Every culture has taken a spin at the legend, and our hopes and dreams really DO pull us up and out of depression, fiscal and otherwise.

If the audience can engage and identify with the characters, then theater works a whole lot better!  We’ve certainly put a few layers on top of Rossini, but I suspect he’d be cracking jokes right along with the rest of us.

Anyone watching today who’s had to tighten their belt the past few years will understand how desperate folks might go be “make it big” and win the lottery – to show off their talent – to be rewarded for being themselves.

Our initial collaborators in Kansas City are still talking about the fun we had doing this production — and finding references even now.  The props mistress, for example, keeps her eye out for the right lamp, the right coffeepot, etc.

It’s been eight years since we started this concept, and every outing makes it fresh because every cast brings their experience to bear. Here in Madison, Daniela Mack and Danny Belcher have dance background; Steve Condy (below) is a veteran comedian who knows the Marx Bros./Abbott & Costello routines by heart, among many many others; Greg Schmidt has a vast knowledge of bel canto rep and spot on Italian — those high C’s are thrilling and in context !  Our Alidoro is actually conversant in philosophy.

So I hope this framework allows the music to come back off the page — and with our short rehearsal period, nearly as fast as Rossini wrote them down!  We have a dedicated chorus and crew of extras filling out the story with multiple characters and costumes and 17 scene shifts, some subtle, some grand, but all leading us to the joyous conclusion of “Non piu mesa” (at bottom, sung by Cecilia Bartoli).

There’s an entire box that travels with me for this production of photos and reference materials and we’re constantly pouring over them to find ideas, solutions and examples. What do you do with your hands? How can I stand? What makes me look glamorous? And then, this year, seeing not only HUGO, but also THE ARTIST, we had big-screen examples of stories from this era, too.  When I saw how some of the dancing moments play out in THE ARTIST, I could only smile at the coincidence.

What else would you like to say about this production in specific or about Madison, its audiences and your previous experience with the Madison Opera in general?

I’m honored by the care and intelligence Madison Opera, its general director Kathryn Smith and our conductor John DeMain have lavished on this concept!  They all believe in it, too, and have gone out of their way to support, defend, engage and tempt everyone to join in the fun. That’s so rewarding as a director, to see the energy we created in rehearsal not only leap across the pit and charm the audience, but to leap exponentially into the ether and the media and capture everyone’s attention.

I feel certain Rossini would have loved that. This music is the motor and the very foundation of our ideas – and if we can hear it from a fresh point of view, it comes to life.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,245 other subscribers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,426,434 hits
%d bloggers like this: