Nineteenth century French opera composer Jules Massenet probably never imagined mice as part of his “Cinderella” story.
But for a gymnasium full of 5- to 9-year-olds raised on Disney, those helpful rodents are an essential part of how Cinderella gets to the ball to meet her prince. When Opera for the Young began its new adaptation of Massenet’s “Cendrillon,” artistic director Diane Garton Edie knew mice were a must.
“We have to reduce the number of characters, but also produce meaningful parts for the children,” said Edie, who adapted Henri Gain’s libretto to fit elementary schoolers. “I like to have the children do something that’s integral to the story, and with these familiar tales, to have something they look forward to and expect.
“I knew they would like there to be mice in the opera, and so there are.”
Opera for the Young, a Madison-based nonprofit founded in 1970, will perform in about a third of Madison area elementary schools this year. Every year, a small ensemble plays to about 75,000 children at some 200 performances across Wisconsin and in several neighboring states.
“Cinderella,” funded jointly by grants from Studio Jewelers and the National Endowment for the Arts, is the company’s first new adaptation since 2005, when “Hansel and Gretel” debuted.
Other works in the Opera for the Young repertoire include Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Dvořák’s “Rusalka.”
While the music remains the backbone of each piece, nearly everything else changes. For “Cinderella,” Edie and Dan Plummer, Opera for the Young’s general director, distilled the cast to four main perfomers (Cinderella, her father, her stepmother/fairy godmother and the prince). She triple-cast them with young professional opera singers; the orchestra became a single piano accompanist (also triple-cast).
Edie took the idea of each aria and fit new words to the melody. She cut out repetition, because “it won’t play to third-graders on a Friday afternoon,” and confined the action to an hour. The “Frenchness” of “Cendrillon” remains solely in a herald’s exaggerated Pepe Le Pew accent.
“Humor is a big thing for Opera for the Young, because it’s a huge thing for children,” Edie said. “I find it in the operas, the staging and the libretto.
“We try to make it accessible by making it understandable and fun,” she added. “It isn’t some arcane event that only grown-ups can understand or enjoy, or only adults who live in a big city and go to an expensive opera house.
“We try to make it as lively as it can be.”
In “Cinderella,” a troupe of elementary schoolers play Cinderella’s helper mice and the pair of galloping steeds that take her to the ball on a “pumpkin coach” made of a wheelie chair. Two students play the king and queen, admonishing the petulant prince, “Because I said so,” and “Don’t be such a baby! Be charming!”
The stepsisters are adult cameos. At a recent performance at Chavez Elementary School, art teacher Dan Slick and first-grade teacher Dan Lemin played Noemie and Dorothee in bold, clownish dresses. The kids howled.
“The preconceived notion starts at a very young age ... people are almost born thinking, ‘Opera!?’” Edie said. “They think it’s going to be stodgy, or people wearing helmets with horns on them and singing with enormous vibrato.
“We change a lot of minds. People go, ‘Fabulous! Opera’s coming.’ It’s a whole new perception we have with these students.”
Opera for the Young continues the Madison leg of its tour with Lowell Elementary on Oct. 18, Randall Elementary on Oct. 30 and Elvehjem Elementary on Nov. 5 (with others to follow).
Guests from the public are welcome at performances, but must follow school registration policy. Family Opera Day, a “Cinderella” performance in Overture Center’s Playhouse, is set for Saturday, June 1, 2013.