Age ain’t nothing but a number, and even numbers appear to be relative. My awareness of this concept is never as acute as when I’m writing about music. Last fall I interviewed Icelandic wunderkind Ásgeir Trausti on the day he opened a show at Neumos. Had he not been performing that day, Ásgeir Trausti would not have been allowed in to the 21+ show. The first time I saw a show at that venue, it was a new club called Moe’s Mo’ Rockin’ Cafe.
The next day, I attended the opening night performance of Seattle Opera’s Turandot as a member of the Bravo! Club for young people. This is my penultimate season as a Bravo! Club member, and although I wonder how I’ll afford full price tickets after I turn 40, I usually feel a bit of a fraud attending opera on a youth ticket. But at Seattle Opera’s lighthearted La Cenerentola last weekend, I really did feel like a kid.
It helped that it was girls’ night out with my old opera partner from the days when student tickets were simply a matter of course. After ordering appetizers (gorgonzola samosas with a viognier for me – eye-rollingly delicious) we immaturely decided dessert and cocktails was as good as dinner. An hour later, buzzed and with a sugar high, the years of infrequent phone calls and toddler-supervising play dates had melted away and we were confessing embarrassing stories and telling secrets like old times, except with better liquor (10 Mercer’s rye Manhattan may have ruined the bourbon version for me).
At McCaw Hall, instead of reading our booklets about the opera, we kept gossiping until the seating bell rang. As the lights began to dim, we remembered our first time at the opera together – a marathon evening of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde that almost ended my nascent interest in the art form. (I’m still not a Wagner fan.) When Isolde finally, finally died, Tristan sang his grief above her corpse. Both performers conformed to the popular image of the Wagnerian singer’s body type. Tristan was to hold her lifeless hand to his heart, but her arm could barely reach past his prodigious belly. I’m sure it wasn’t really funny, but it was late and we were loopy, and the world-class performance by two top Wagner vocalists was lost on us. The sight of Tristan repeatedly yanking Isolde up from her bier gave us the giggles, and over a decade later, just as the lights dimmed for Cinderella, the memory was enough get us giggling again.
Fortunately, Rossini’s version of Cinderella is a much more appropriate story for giggling, and it’s easy to enjoy even if you haven’t done your homework. Over the next three hours we were hardly the only ones laughing out loud. Long after the alcohol wore off, we continued to snicker at the gags onstage. I might have laughed as much at Cosi fan tutti, but probably not. Cosi fan tutti was ironically funny, while Cinderella is guileless.
Curiously for bel canto, La Cenerentola is remarkably down to earth, despite its high spirits. Unlike opera’s many maudlin heroines, Cinderella herself (properly named Angelina) is clear-headed, virtuous, and strong-willed, within the limits of her station. La Cenerentola has no fairy godmother and no glass slipper. Instead of throwing a shoe like a thoroughbred, Angelina intentionally gives the prince a piece of jewelry, and challenges him to find her. She will marry him only when he takes the effort to discover who she really is.
Of course royals and servants switch places in Cinderella, giving rise to mistaken identities and double entendre – it is still opera after all. But one of my favorite things about Seattle Opera is the way that they take an art form that really doesn’t age well and make it relevant and current. Although the music is timeless, opera characters and storylines are too often shallow and support appallingly antiquated values. Seattle Opera makes the most of the source material, building credible characters out of a few notable lines, and inserting gestures and actions that speak volumes. They add depth to the story and humanity to the characters by working around what is actually there without destroying the original artwork.
The other thing I love about Seattle Opera is the sets. They never fail to impress, and often, as in La Cenerentola, become like characters themselves. A simple lighting change transforms Cinderella’s house into the royal palace. A piece of furniture serves as a carriage. Off-stage events are related by puppets and toys – manipulated by the mice. Oh, the mice! What a brilliant addition! Never making a sound, they in no way alter the notes Rossini wrote, but their actions add so much to the theatrical performance. Like the kuroko in kabuki theater, the mice negotiate many of the on-stage technicalities. Like real-life mice, they are sometimes invisible to the main players, and sometimes participate in the story. Cinderella talks to the mice as a lonely kitchen maid might; the prince’s valet is appalled by their presence. Only the audience is always aware of the mice, and they are always delighted by them.
My only regret about Cinderella is that I can’t afford a second set of tickets to see the performance next weekend. Then I could bring my daughter and watch it again through the eyes of a real child.