Stéphane Mayer unpacks how “Rossini meets Mean Girls” in COC’s family opera “WOW Factor”

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Simona Genga as Cindy (foreground) with (l-r) Simone McIntosh as Tisbe, Anna-Sophie Neher as Chloe and Lauren Eberwein as Phoebe in the COC’s production of WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences, 2018), photo: Gaetz Photography

A show about a middle-school singing competition . . . by the Canadian Opera Company?

Yes, indeed! With a musical adaptation by composer Stéphane Mayer of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, and a new English libretto by Against the Grain Theatre’s Artistic Director Joel Ivany, WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story reimagines Rossini’s La Cenerentola for the modern milieu.

When the hit singing show WOW Factor arrives at Cindy’s school – with pop sensation Lil’ Charm rumoured to make an appearance – students become eager to compete for the top prize. Shy Cindy dreams of showcasing her singing talents, but when she steps into the spotlight, she sees her friends’ true colours as mean girls. Empowered by a deep desire to sing (and with support from a reluctant pop star and his sidekick), Cindy overcomes her insecurities to find her own voice.

WOW Factor stars current and former artists of the COC Ensemble Studio, Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals. The production ingeniously updates (and questions) Cinderella’s fairy-tale origin, while referencing pop cultural touchstones like selfies, video games, reality singing shows and YouTube stars. The show’s underlying message is empowering and relevant: Cindy is propelled by her own ambitions and talents, rather than the need to escape a bully-filled environment through marriage. Beyond its lively score and eye-catching staging, WOW Factor invites young audiences to consider the value of developing personal agency –  to nurture their talents and believe in themselves in the pursuit of their dreams.

WOW Factor runs a compact 50 minutes, and is sung in English, facilitating a dynamic introduction to opera for children 5 to 12 years of age . . . with loads of appeal for adults, too. A COC commission, WOW Factor is presented through the COC’s Opera for Young Audiences program, which aims to engage a new generation of opera lovers with accessible and entertaining productions. For an enhanced experience, audience members should plan to arrive one hour before each performance to participate in free hands-on activities related to the opera’s themes. After each show, young people can also interact with the cast and creative team at the 10-minute Q&A session.

Stéphane Mayer (photo: Gaetz Photography)

Best of all? Tickets to the public performances are free for children under 12 (to a maximum of two free children’s tickets for each adult ticket sold), making the experience even more accessible.

SesayArts spoke with an enthusiastic Stéphane Mayer about this unique show, his process, and what audiences can expect.

  1. How did you feel on receiving the news that you would be adapting the music of Rossini’s La Cenerentola to complement Joel Ivany’s libretto for WOW Factor? Is such an assignment a challenge for you or something already practised and quite familiar?

I was initially quite excited at the prospect. I’ve been a fan of Rossini’s music from a very early age and La Cenerentola contains some of the most imaginative ensemble writing of all of his operas. I couldn’t get wait to get my hands dirty and dive deeper into the work and figure out how to make it work for WOW Factor. I was also looking forward to getting to work with Joel Ivany; we’ve been in similar circles for the past few years but have never worked together. It was great to finally get to collaborate on a project.

The musical adaptation was a daunting process at first – I had never done anything similar before. However, once I started working on the adaptation more diligently, I found myself enjoying the process a lot and soon enough, all the pieces came together pretty seamlessly.

  1. WOW Factor seems like a lively, contemporary and topical reimagining of the Cinderella story. How did you adapt Rossini’s music to tell a classic story that touches on so many elements of popular and school cultures while keeping your adaptation operatic?

The original story of Cinderella, that of a young helpless girl that rises above her dire circumstance thanks to the help of magic, a nice dress and the love of prince charming, just doesn’t bode well for modern audiences. We needed a story that empowered the titular character. Furthermore, we wanted this story to speak to our young audiences by helping them relate with what is happening on stage. So, when Joel and I got into the workroom together early last spring, we decided pretty quickly to set this adaptation in a junior high school on the day of a major talent show. Once the scenario was set, everything else progressed pretty quickly. The evil stepsisters became the “mean girls”, the moronic stepfather became a power-hungry music teacher, the prince became a pop star and poor Cinderella was turned into a shy but talented young girl by the name of Cindy.

  1. In your YouTube clip, you mention that you had the challenge to create a song for the trio of “mean girls” to sing that should sound “bad”. And the result is a 90s pop ballad (which the parents will get a kick out of!). Can you tell us more about what goes into creating a song for trained singers to sing that is meant to sound “bad” on purpose?

(l-r) Lauren Eberwein as Phoebe, Simone McIntosh as Tisbe and Anna-Sophie Neher as Chloe in the COC’s production of WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences, 2018) photo: Gaetz Photography

This was one of the most daunting tasks I was given. Being responsible for the musical adaptation of this show meant I had to do a few things to the Rossini original so that it would be more palatable for our young audiences. First, I had to reduce the length of the opera from 3 hours to 50 minutes. This in itself was a great challenge and meant that I had to cut a lot of my favourite numbers from the original work. Secondly, I had to create a new role for the opera, the stand-in fairy godmother: Principal Fée (my favorite pun in the show, Fée being the French word for fairy)! For this new character, I had to compose some music in a “faux”-Rossini style. This was actually a great challenge as a composer. I had to emulate Rossini’s music while still trying to stay true to my own voice. Luckily, I believe both my music and Rossini’s music relies on catchy, singable melodies, so emulating his style came quite naturally to me.

Next, I had to create music for the competition portion of WOW Factor. I needed to write a triumphant song for Cindy to sing so that she could blow the judges away. I did this by writing a variation of Rossini’s “Una volta c’era un re”. In the original opera, Cinderella sings this little ditty three times. It’s sort of her theme song. In our adaptation, Cindy sings the same melody a few times before the competition. It’s a sad little song, slow and languid; it perfectly portrays the timidity of the character. However, for Cindy’s competition piece, I took this same melody and turned it into a show-stopping, upbeat number, full of vocal fireworks. By transforming the music in this way, I hope the audience will see how much Cindy has transformed as person over the course of the opera, while always retaining a part of herself and of her spirit.

Last, I had to take the roles of Clorinda and Tisbe (the original evil-stepsisters in La Cenerentola) and turn them into a trio of “mean girls”. Tisbe kept her name and is leader of the pack. Clorinda became Chloe, Tisbe’s second-in-command. To round off our trio, we added Phoebe, a doe-eyed, bubble-gum blowing, dumb-as-nails brat! I was then giving the task of creating a competition number for them, something that was so obviously “bad” that no audience member would ever sympathize with them. Joel and I decided to borrow an aria by Rossini from one his other works, “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville. This is by far Rossini’s most popular aria; it has even been attempted by a few pop artists through the ages. This aria already blurs the lines between classical and popular music, so we decided to bring it all the way to one end of the spectrum and turn it into a full-blown pop song, complete with backup singers, terrible (in the best sense of the word) nonsensical lyrics and with vocal riffs reminiscent of Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera. I am the first to admit that I am not very familiar with this kind of music, so it was a lot of fun to get to dip my toes into this style and listen to a ton of pop music so that I could parody it accurately.

Luckily, Simone McIntosh who plays the head mean girl Tisbe, started out singing popular music before pursuing a career in opera. She navigates this hybrid style with real panache and the vocal riffs she came up with are so incredibly “spot-on” it almost feels like this was the way the aria was actually always meant to be sung. The whole number is so much fun, I am sure the audience will be crying with laughter.

  1. In terms of WOW Factor as a whole, I’m curious about the thematic elements of this 21st Century Cinderella story. What would you like audiences to know, or what do you hope they notice?

A scene from the COC’s production of WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences, 2018) photo: Gaetz Photography

Put as simply as possible, WOW Factor reads as Rossini meets Mean Girls. Our fantastic production team, headed by the wonderful director Anna Theodosakis, was able to create a world that is both whimsical and modern. On every corner of the stage you will see little nods to the original Cinderella story, from the school mascot (a mouse standing in front of a pumpkin) to the book shy Cindy is always reading (the original fairy tale). The whole package is delivered in a very modern style. Bright fluorescent wigs complement the hip Harajuku clothing. All the characters make extensive use of social media throughout the opera, and their phones are never too far from their fingertips. The language is also really current (well, as current as we could make it; I’ve never felt older than when I had to ask what “Gucci” and “Bra” meant as slang). There’s also a lot of dancing to look forward to in this show, something I am sure will make the kids laugh wholeheartedly when they see it!  

  1. Opera is a story told through music. Do you have any tips for young opera goers for ways to attend to the music in order to appreciate its contribution to and enhancement of storytelling?  

I’ll be the first to say that opera can be quite hard to navigate for the uninitiated. The music can seem perplexing; it is almost always sung in a foreign language; it’s larger than life, and that can be intimidating to a lot of concertgoers. Luckily, with this production, all those barriers are brought down. Rossini’s music is catchy, light and effervescent. The whole show is sung in English, and the entire cast of singers is young and “cool”. We are all up-and-coming, passionate opera professionals. We know how powerful and incredible these stories and this music can be. So I hope audiences will come with an open mind and eager to have a good time. I can guarantee that this show will not disappoint, and who knows, maybe it will inspire a few children to explore this art form more in their future!  

  1. The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

I think I’ve said all I have to say about this show. All that is left is to experience it first-hand. If you have curious kids or are a curious adult yourself, come down to the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, and let us blow your socks off! We have the WOW that will make you MEOW! (One of my favourite lines from the show, haha!)

A scene from the COC’s production of WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences, 2018), photo: Gaetz Photography

News You Can Use

What: WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story based on Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola; Musical Adaptation by Stéphane Mayer; Libretto by Joel Ivany; Directed by Anna Theodosakis; Set and Costume Design by James Bolton; Lighting Design by Siobhan Sleath

Performed by Simona Genga (Cindy), Charles Sy (L’il Charm), Samuel Chan (Tiny Dan), Joel Allison (Mr. Magnifico), Anna-Sophie Neher (Chloe), Simone McIntosh (Tisbe), Lauren Eberwein (Phoebe), Lauren Margison (Principal Fée)

When: December 1 and 2, 2018; Relaxed Performance: Sunday, December 2, 11 AM

Where: Imperial Oil Opera Theatre at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, 227 Front St. East, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: 

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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