UNL Opera presents Massenet's Cendrillon (Cinderella) Feb. 21 and 23

Hixson-Lied Professor William Shomos (left) directs a music rehearsal with the cast of "Cendrillon." Performances of the opera are Feb. 21 and 23 in Kimball Hall.
Hixson-Lied Professor William Shomos (left) directs a music rehearsal with the cast of "Cendrillon." Performances of the opera are Feb. 21 and 23 in Kimball Hall.

The Glenn Korff School of Music's opera program will present Jules Massenet's "Cendrillon" (Cinderella) on Feb. 21 and 23. The performances will be directed by Hixson-Lied Professor of Voice and Director of Opera William Shomos.

Performances are Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall, 11th and R sts. Tickets are $20 adults and $10 for students/seniors. They are available in advance from the Lied Center Box Office at (402) 472-4747 or (800) 432-3231 or at the door.

“Cendrillon” is described as a fairy tale in four acts by Massenet to a French libretto by Henri Cain. It is based on Charles Perrault’s 1698 version of the Cinderella fairy tale. It will be performed in French with supertitles, but Shomos said it is entirely family friendly.

“If you know the Cinderella story, you’re going to be able to follow what’s going on,” Shomos said.

Many are familiar with either the Disney or Rodgers and Hammerstein versions of Cinderella. The Massenet opera version includes the fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella and gives her a glass slipper and a midnight curfew.

Massenet’s opera also has three major differences from those versions. One, Cinderella’s father is still alive in the opera.

“It’s his house, and he is the hen-pecked husband who cannot control his new wife and has no defense to help out Cinderella,” Shomos said.

The other difference is the treatment of Cinderella by the step mother and step sisters.

“They’re not portrayed sympathetically at all,” Shomos said. “On the other hand, they aren’t terribly mean to Cinderella, either. They just neglect and ignore her.”

The third difference is a scene that takes place by an oak tree following the ball. When the step mother and step sisters return from the ball, they talk about the ball.

“Arriving home after the ball, the piece of information the stepmother relates to Cinderella is that after the mysterious woman (Cinderella) ran off at the stroke of midnight, the Prince came to his senses, declaring to the guests that she was a worthless trollop! Well, the stepmother is lying, but Cinderella doesn’t know that, and she is devastated.”

Cinderella goes off on her own and appears almost to give up on life. She ends up at an oak tree, where the fairy godmother lives.

“All of a sudden, the story takes on a weird dream-like character,” Shomos said.

The Prince is also at the oak tree, but the two cannot look at each other. They eventually recognize each other’s voices. When the fairy godmother finally allows them to see each other, Cinderella falls asleep.

“It’s open to a lot of interpretation,” Shomos said. “When she wakes up, her father tells her she has been dreaming.”

But we won’t give away the ending.

The ambiguity of this odd oak tree scene inspired Shomos to take some imaginative latitude in his staging concept, so he has cast two different Cinderellas—one that is conventional, and another that is unconventional.

“As a father of girls, the one thing that drives me nuts about the Cinderella story is that even though we all know she is beautiful at heart,” Shomos said, “The only way she’s actually accepted into society is when she gets the nice dress and she becomes the beauty queen-type. That bothered me.”

He decided to explore having both conventional and unconventional halves of Cinderella.

“I wanted to challenge our audience to ask, ‘What are our preconceived ideas of what Cinderella is?’” Shomos said. “If you ask anyone on the street, ‘Is inner beauty more important that outer beauty?’ We’re all going to say yes. But what is physical beauty? Whether we like it or not, we still have this idea that beauty is a certain kind of model that one sees on the cover of magazines. And we all try to say that’s not the way it is, but the media pushes those images at us so much, I think it’s difficult to deny the influence.”

He cast second-year Master of Music student Jamie Unger, who is closer to the conventional Cinderella, and he cast Alexandra Tiller, a senior vocal performance major from Stilwell, Kan., who is a more unconventional type for Cinderella.

“Sometimes they’re in dialogue with each other, in words or in action,” Shomos said. “But they are the same person. They feel the same things at the same time. And just like human beings, sometimes we are of two minds, and sometimes those two minds are in support of each other and sometimes we’re at odds with ourselves.”

The two roles have challenged the performers.

“It’s an interesting challenge, having to react to someone who is also you, but doesn’t look like you,” Tiller said. “We’re very different body types, hair color and even voice types. I’m sure it would be even harder if it were someone different, but Jamie is such a sweet and genuine person. She took this casting in stride and has been nothing but nice and helpful in this process.”

Unger said it’s been interesting to have two people play the character simultaneously.

“Cinderella is not transformed to an idealized version of external beauty, but instead to her untarnished inner beauty, before the hardships of life with her stepmother and stepsisters,” Unger said. “They see Cinderella as someone she ultimately is not. I think we've all looked in the mirror during trying life circumstances and seen ourselves not as we are, but as we feel. Perception can cloud our vision.”

Tiller likes the idea of the casting because of the added layer of social commentary that it brings.

“One of the descriptions of Cinderella is that she is as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside, so why must she be small and skinny and the Eurocentric ideal of beauty?” Tiller said. “Having two Cinderellas makes it a lot more interesting to me. Isn’t her heart the most important part? I think that’s going to make the audience and even our cast think in a very good way.”

Shomos said, “Both of my Cinderellas are very beautiful.”

The opera will also be set in the 1930s and is designed by two graduate students in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. David Tousley is the set designer, and Clay Van Winkle is the lighting designer. The orchestra will be directed by Professor Tyler White.

“It’s not set in Hollywood, but it’s a Hollywood feel for the facades that people use,” Shomos said. “We just liked the style of that period.”

That theme carries over to the oak tree scene, which becomes a dark nightclub.

“What’s been a very bright, light set, becomes very dark and dangerous as Cinderella descends into her deepest despair,” Shomos said. “We preserve the ambiguity—is this a dream or is this really happening?”

Unger said audiences should expect to be transported back in time.

“We are going back in time, and we are doing old-Hollywood-style glamour,” she said. “And we are really increasing the amount of magic that is taking place. This production will be both what you would expect and what you would never have expected.”

Tiller is excited for the production.

“I never expected to get a part this big in my undergraduate career,” she said. “This is my first mainstage opera, so I think I have a lot more excitement than my peers because I’m not used to any of this yet.”

Unger is excited to play an elegant princess.

“Cinderella has always been my most favorite,” she said. “One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting in bed as a toddler and, even before I could read the words, narrating the story to my mom by the pictures in my pink Cinderella storybook. The little girl in me can't wait to put on the beautiful gown and slippers and go to the ball. I also love the beautiful music in this production. Massenet has truly captured the sound of a fairy tale, both in the lovely melodies and the orchestration.”

Tiller thinks audiences will enjoy the production.

“It’s something I love about opera, how you can make completely untraditional and modern settings of classic stories and give them a twist,” she said. “As far as I know, there hasn’t been a performance of Cendrillon quite like this, so I am excited for all of it, really. The show is going to be great, and I really hope a lot of people see it.”