UNL opera’s production of “Cinderella” will have you seeing double
UNL student Jamie Unger looks like the real-life version of Cinderella: she’s slim, blonde and has a graceful step. It makes sense she is playing Cinderella in UNL opera’s upcoming production of “Cendrillon.“
“Going way back, as a little girl, Cinderella was always my favorite princess,” Unger said.
UNL student Alexandra Tiller admits she doesn’t look like the classic Cinderella: she’s tall, with a large build, and lacks the light feet Unger possesses. She, too, will be playing the role of Cinderella in the opera.
“I get her feelings of being left out and unworthy of attention of someone like a prince,” Tiller said. “I think in a way it’s been really positive to see someone like me get a prince at the end.”
The UNL opera’s adaptation of the French opera version of “Cinderella” features two different “perceptions” of the same character in order to explore society’s standards of beauty. One of the characters will represent how Cinderella commonly appears to the other characters. The other will represent her inner beauty.
“I find it more rewarding to work with two living breathing aspects of Cinderella, or perceptions of Cinderella, than trying to explain why people respond to the same person just because she’s changed her clothes,” William Shomos, the director of UNL opera, said.
Unger, a masters student studying vocal performance, will portray the conventional version of Cinderella. Tiller, a senior vocal performance major, will portray a more unconventional version.
“It’s challenging the ideas of what Cinderella has to look like and be like,” Tiller said. “There’s a social commentary to it now about appearances and the importance of what’s inside.”
The characters in the opera see a different version of Cinderella depending on how they perceive her and how she perceives herself at any point in the show. Both will be onstage for most of the performance; they interact with each other and sometimes one will be in the background reacting to what the other is doing in the main portion of the scene.
The idea of Cinderella
Shomos said that what bothers him the most about the Cinderella story is that everyone thinks that she is loved because she is beautiful, but her kind heart is commonly overlooked. His idea for this adaptation came to him after asking himself a question about raising his two daughters.
“It’s such a battle to remind them it’s not what our culture says you look like that’s important,” he said. “The thought started with a question, ‘Why does Cinderella need the pretty dress and the fancy hairdo for people to appreciate who she is?’”
The decision of which Cinderella represents her outward appearance and which represents her inner beauty is ultimately up to the audience. Shomos purposefully made the line vague so that people would have to think about their own perceptions of beauty.
“My idea is to just keep reminding the audience how much we are sucked into this ideal that society over history has decided upon,” he said.
For both Unger and Tiller, playing the role of Cinderella has been an emotional experience.
For Unger, it’s been a way for her to rebound from tragedy. A year and a half ago, Unger’s father was in a biking accident and has been in a wheelchair ever since. This is her first big role since the accident.
“You know, for Cinderella it was her stepfamily, and for me, it’s been my family just overcoming everything that has happened. It’s just nice to see her go through all that and come out on top,” Unger said. “It’s just nice to see a happy ending.”
For Tiller, it’s been more about tapping into her problems with her own image and putting that emotion into her character.
“I’ve been channeling some of the sadder times in my life and thinking of her alone,” Tiller said. “She’s creative and smart and nice and she’s not mad at anyone, she’s just in a crappy situation.”
Like any opera, “Cendrillon” presents many musical challenges for the actors, from adapting their voice to a new part, to memorizing the meaning of the French words they’re singing. The creative changes made to the opera have presented additional challenges for the performers.
“One acting challenge I’m having is how to react to what is going on and watching someone who is myself going through these things,” Tiller said.
Unger has faced similar difficulties.
“Having the role split, it’s added an acting layer on there because it’s not a one dimensional character anymore,” Unger said.
For Matthew Clegg, who will be playing Cinderella’s prince, it’s been all about making sure his character believably falls for two sides of the same person.
“I make sure that I’m making the prince affectionate with both Cinderella one and Cinderella two,” the masters student said. “I try to give the same adoring reaction every time.”
Other changes to the classic story
Another creative change Shomos has made to the story is taking it out of medieval times and placing it in the Hollywood glamour setting of the 1930s. The director said that he chose the time period because he thought its “focus on facades” would be a good match for the story’s adapted message.
“It adds some spice to make it more interesting and makes it less generic,” Clegg said. “Bill wanted to try and take it out of fairy tale and make it more relatable, like this applies to us now.”
The change in time period mostly affects the setting and costumes, but some characters have been adapted for it too.
“The fairy godmother and her spirits are the biggest change,” Unger said. “She’s more of a femme fatale with all the glamour.”
Despite the many changes, Shomos and the cast think the audience will enjoy the performance.
“Because it’s so familiar, the fact that we’re playing with it will keep the audience more interested,” he said. “We never lose track of the story we all know and love.”
Performances of “Cendrillon” will be Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 23, 3:00 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall. For additional information on the performance, check out the event on Facebook.