Sunday night I had the great opportunity to see the Kentucky Opera's production of Cendrillon, Massenet's operatic setting of Perrault's Cinderella tale. The beautiful Brown Theater in downtown Louisville was filled with eager patrons of all ages. I was encouraged to see more children in the audience than usual in my opera-going experience. I expected an enjoyable evening of transcendent music and storytelling. I did not expect a social commentary on the understanding of gender roles, hints of homophobia and an innocent perspective of inclusion.
As a rule, Americans are familiar with the Cinderella story in one form or another. In my childhood, Disney's cartoon version and the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical were staples. In Massenet's operatic setting, the role of the prince is intended to be played by a woman. "Pants roles" such as this are not uncommon in operatic repertoire. The character, though played by a woman, is meant to be male and seen as such by the audience. In this instance the similarly ranged voices of Cinderella and the prince blend together beautifully in a way that would not be possible were the prince's role performed by a man; Massenet knew what he was doing. Kentucky Opera remained true to his artistic intent. Some in the audience, however, seemed to have their doubts.
Claire Shackleton, who played the prince, acted superbly. Her well-practiced masculine mannerisms and movements (aided by costume, wig and makeup) were convincing -- so convincing, in fact, that for the first few moments she was on stage, many in the audience didn't know she wasn't a man.
Then she sang.
The rich mezzo-soprano timbre was clearly that of a woman. Murmurs erupted throughout the theater. "Is that a woman? I think that's a woman! Can you believe that's a woman?!"
This response was a bit surprising to me. Again, pants roles are not uncommon in operatic repertoire. Massenet had a specific artistic intent. Then there's the fact that the program clearly lists Claire Shackleton as the prince, alongside her headshot complete with flowing hair and beautiful feminine features. I was surprised by the response but not bothered or offended. Perhaps the familiar Cinderella story drew more new opera goers than usual. Perhaps a large percentage of the evening's crowd just hadn't had the opportunity to see a pants role before. Or was it something more?
Unfortunately, unfamiliarity wasn't the only cause for the mild uproar. During intermission I was disheartened to hear comments such as, "Can You believe they cast the prince as a woman?! That's just wrong! Why would they do such a thing?! Two women acting in love?!"
These responses did bother me.
Certainly this reaction was only that of a fraction of the audience. Nevertheless, what is it, even in this theatrical and artistic environment, that prevents these folks from even the suspension of disbelief? Is it homophobia? Is it a rigid view of "acceptable" gender roles? Would these same people be as upset watching the latest Tyler Perry movie? Is it just the idea of "cross dressing" that offends, or is it the idea of two actors of the same gender playing genuine intimacy? Why would either be offensive? Whatever the case, what was clear was the lack of understanding, the sentiment of judgment, and the fear of the "different." As a gay man who has struggled with similar reactions, this struck a painful chord. How do we overcome the fear of what's different? One young girl, also in attendance at the opera, seemed to have the answer.
This one young girl, no more than 9 years old, was mesmerized. She talked to her grandmother about the similarities to the Disney movie storyline. She loved the costumes and singing. She noticed that the prince was a girl! She thought that was pretty cool! It meant that she could play the prince when she grew up! Her eyes were opened to something new. This girl noticed the same something "different," but she was clearly not afraid. She was excited and enlightened. Her perspective carried no judgment or malice or fear of social constructs. This innocent girl saw art and beauty and love.
So what makes the difference? Chances are that this young girl had never seen a pants role before. Why was she delightfully intrigued while others were offended? Perhaps this one girl is unique. Perhaps she comes from a particularly progressive and artistic family environment. My guess is that it's something else. My guess is that inherent in youth is an innocent lack of judgment. Inherent in youth is the ability to see things for what they are.
This young girl will grow up. Countless teachers, religious leaders, politicians, reporters, colleagues and friends will influence her worldview. God willing, she'll remember that night at the opera and how beautiful it was.