Disney Animated Opera

People like to complain about the terrible lessons of the old Disney films. Cinderella is too passive. Belle has Stockholm Syndrome. Ariel is just an idiot. And they've tried to appeal more to modern audiences by deviating from the standard stories and creating more proactive princesses in films such as The Princess And The Frog and Frozen, often to the point of feeling really self-conscious and heavy-handed. Not to detract from these movies, of course (and certainly not to detract from the scores, most of which are very good and by Alan Menken). I didn't generate these complaints. I'm relaying them secondhand, and relaying them because I think I can offer a suitable alternative. Several of these classic fairy tales have ready-made operatic alternatives with smart protagonists, good morals, good music, and are out of copyright and already Disney-ready. So to the Disney execs reading this (I know you're out there among my half-dozen or so readers I'm sure I dearly hope but probably not), how are these for some upcoming features?

Cinderella La Cenerentola

What's the problem with Cinderella? Well she's too passive. She plays no role in her fate. She waits around for a fairy godmother, goes to a ball, and then leaves without taking any steps to ensure that anything will work out. That she loses the shoe is pure luck, and everything from then on is driven by the prince. Well, the primary boon of Rossini's La Cenerentola is that that prince finally has a name other than "Charming". It's Ramiro, and it's a perfectly good name, so I'm going to be calling him by it.

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. These are the archetypal examples of fairy tale princesses just waiting for everything to sort itself out. The latter two at least have the excuse of being in comas, but Cinderella is due for a re-branding. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim had an answer to the problem in Into The Woods. A clever solution too. In their interpretation, as can be heard in the song "On The Steps Of The Palace", is that Cinderella does not know what she wants. She therefore dodges the responsibility of having to choose by leaving the shoe on purpose, therefore putting the responsibility of dictating the ending in the prince's hands. Now she's not passive, but rather actively dodging responsibility. Now that works out well enough for Into The Woods, but isn't exactly a moral Disney might want when they're not planning to kill off half the cast in Act II. And so we need to find a more responsible Cinderella.

The answer is Rossini's La Cenerentola. In this version of the story, there is no magic -- although many productions stage it that way anyway. The fairy godmother stand-in is Ramiro's tutor, Alidoro. In the beginning, he is disguised as a beggar, and he shows up on Don Magnifico's (the wicked stepfather's) doorstep asking for charity. The two stepsisters turn him away, but Angelina (Cinderella/Cenerentola) gives him some food and coffee. On the reveal that Ramiro is searching for a bride at a ball he is throwing, it's made clear that Alidoro is going around scouting for a suitable bride, which is why he provides Angelina with the means to go to the ball.

But Angelina isn't the only person in disguise. Ramiro has disguised himself as his own valet, Dandini. Dandini in turn takes the place of the prince. This for obvious reasons. Angelina falls for the fake-valet, and vice versa. And now instead of running away and happening to lose a shoe, she deliberately gives him one of two matching bracelets for the express purpose of finding her later. In the second act, of course, all the disguises come off and all ends happily ever after.

And so there's no blind luck, no waiting for everything to work out, and most importantly, no glass shoes. Once she's able to, Angelina takes matters into her own hands. She's not going on any grand adventure or leading some movement, but Cinderella is a simple story, and Cenerentola is a bit better of a character. Certainly a better role model than Cendrillon. Also, she's a mezzo, and mezzo-sopranos suffer from a severe lack of good role models in opera.

Beauty And The Beast The Beauty Stone

I don't know that there's really a good way to spin the Beauty and the Beast story. The two main problems, at least with the Disney version, are that the Beast is not a very nice suitor. He essentially takes Belle prisoner. The Stockholm Syndrome interpretation is popular, as is the interpretation that Gaston (who is as far as I can tell Disney's invention) is completely justified in his actions. The other problem is that the Beast becomes a handsome prince at the end, which sort of undermines the "true beauty is on the inside" moral.

The better alternative is the least successful of the Savoy operas, The Beauty Stone. Mostly a failure because as far as serious drama is concerned, it makes The Yeomen Of The Guard look like The Pirates Of Penzance. After the titular stone has been passed around for three acts, it's taken out of commission by the Devil (who also introduced it to the plot and at every turn basically fails at being a devil), and everyone is back at their baseline level of attractiveness. First the cripple Laine gets the stone, and Lord Philip selects her for a bride. Then she becomes disillusioned with beauty, realizing that Philip only wants her for a trophy wife, so she demands to be let go and she discards the stone. Philip is thoroughly ashamed of all this and so he goes off to fight in whatever war is going on because of course there's a war going on. Then after some rigmarole, Saida, who was already the most beautiful soprano in the cast, gets the stone, but when Philip comes back from the war he goes back to Laine. Saida discards the stone in frustration and then the Devil tries to give Saida the "the beauty was inside you all along" speech for some reason. Like I said, he basically fails at being a devil.

There is one minor detail that somewhat undermines the moral, but it is a quick fix which I'm sure the Disney version will take care to make. Saida has the stone at this point, which, given that she was already the most beautiful person in town, makes her that much more beautiful and so all men on stage (except for the devil) automatically fall in love with her. When Philip comes back from the war, he is blinded, and that therefore makes him immune to Saida's spell. He recognizes Laine by her voice. The problem is that it is implied that the only reason Philip is choosing his bride by voice is because he can no longer judge their looks. The solution is to not blind him, but have Laine's voice win him out from Saida's appearance anyway. Laine singing offstage already managed to snap Simon back to his senses at the beginning of Act III, so there's precedent for that, as is there also precedent for Disney princesses having magic singing voices. So it really works out from all angles.

Speaking of magic singing voices...

The Little Mermaid Die Frau Ohne Schatten

This is one that will probably take some rebranding before Disney can roll it out. But then so did the original Little Mermaid. For a more accurate Little Mermaid see Dvorak's Rusalka. But the basic story elements are there, and Strauss' fairy tale opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten covers most of the issues. The main issue being that Ariel is an idiot.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten has no deal with the devil, nor does it have its princess give up her whole life for some man she's never spoken to. What instead sets up the plot is that the Empress (before she was the Empress -- unlike La Cenerentola, in which everyone has names, basically nobody is given a name in Die Frau Ohne Schatten) was a shapeshifter, and one day, in the form of a gazelle, was attacked by a red falcon. The emperor, in turn, was chasing the falcon. At the last minute, the empress assumed human form, and then lost the talisman that gave her her shapeshifting abilities. Stuck as a human, she ended up marrying the Emperor, who is now obsessed with finding that red falcon.

Now, the empress is still not actually a human, although she greatly resembles one. And what betrays this fact is that she has no shadow. Her father, the evil spirit Keikobad (who never appears on stage), insists that she obtain a shadow within an arbitrary time limit or else return to the spirit realm.

A lot of stuff happens in the opera, most of which I'll be skipping past for the sake of simplicity, and because Disney wouldn't include half the stuff in this opera anyway. The basic overview from here on is that the Empress and her nurse (who is the obligatory plucky sidekick -- in the Disney version she's probably a superintelligent axolotl or something like that) go out in search of a shadow. They come across a dyer (the only named character in the piece -- Barak), and his wife. Without going into details, the nurse cons the wife out of her shadow. Just as things are about to go bad (as things are wont to do when you give up your shadow apparently), the Empress has a last-minute attack of conscience at returns the wife's shadow. Keikobad drags them all to the spirit realm and insists that the Empress take the wife's shadow by force. The Empress refuses, and this act of defiance defeats Keikobad and grants her her own shadow. Also, it fixes the Emperor who had been turned to stone for some reason.

With the same basic plot concept -- magic humanoid non-human stuck among humans given arbitrary time limit within which to become human -- if this isn't an improvement over Disney's current Little Mermaid, who does absolutely nothing conducive to her obligatory happy ending -- I might add that the Empress already has a happy ending, no Disneyfication required -- I don't know what is.

Aida Aida

Disney already did Aida. I really don't know what's up with that. But I guess it's not the worst opera they could pick. I mean, it's not like anybody dies.


  1. I'd like to comment, but as I consider myself a Disney creation, I'll wait and see what happens next.




Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tosca And Tradition

Seasonal Safety: Secco Recit's Spiffy Spreadsheet

A Historically Informed "Echad Mi Yodea"