There is something both queer and homophobic about a fairy tale.
Fairy tales are very heteronormative: the ‘happily ever after’ only exists for heterosexual couples. Insipid female leads are rescued by bland men. And, perhaps most of all, anything resisting against a union of heterosexuality is evil, dark and villainous.
But that part, the resistance against the norm, is also everywhere in fairy tales. From a mermaid doing everything she can to get a pair of legs to a kissing of a frog, fairy tales teach us to take risks to achieve our dreams.
Taking a queer angle on a fairy tale is nothing new. Characters in Disney, especially villains, have long been coded as queer.
But it was at Glyndebourne, one of the oldest and biggest opera festivals in the world, in which I saw something special.
Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella) is an explicitly queer production. In this version of the fairy tale, a same-sex couple is this show’s happy ending.
Glyndebourne Festival 2019
As I wrote about my first experience last year, Glyndebourne takes on classic culture differently.
People attend the festival, held near a town called Lewes between Brighton and London, from around the globe. And because people attend for the world-class performances and the experience of picnics in formal-wear, it can afford to take risks.
If you feel comfortable in the audience of a Broadway or West End show, which all have similar price points to opera, you’re welcome at Glyndebourne.
The difference may be to do with perspective. Unlike musicals, with its jazz hands, opera can sometimes be seen as serious or for the elite. But don’t be fooled by the bow-ties, opera can be just as queer as its showtune-singing sister.
The perspective is changing. In my second time ever at Glyndebourne, I estimated that about half the crowd was under 40. It’s no surprise that age 30-and-under tickets sell fast.
And I would not be surprised if Cendrillon was its most popular show this year.
Cendrillon by Massenet: A very different Cinderella story
The plot of Cinderella is something we all know: girl tortured by her stepmother and stepsisters gets to go to the ball thanks to a fairy godmother and she wins the prince in the end.
But there are twists in Fiona Shaw’s production (the show is revived and directed for the festival by Fiona Dunn). Fiona Shaw also worked on Killing Eve.
At first glance, these modern changes are aesthetic. The stepsisters and stepmother call to mind The Only Way Is Essex with their heaps of shopping bags and kebabs after a night out.
Cinderella, dressed similarly to the other servants, connects with one maid begrudgingly photographing the stepsisters for their Instagram.
She dreams by the fireplace, and the maid becomes Prince Charming in her mind. But instead of dressed exactly like a man, the maid is dressed as soft butch – soft white shirt, lavender crop trousers, sparkling jacket.
When she wakes, she attempts suicide hoping to return to the dream where she’s happy.
But she survives, and she realises her true love was in her sights all along.
Queerness as an inherent theme
Queerness is everywhere in this production. The first time we see Prince Charming, the actress’ breasts are being bound.
The butterfly, signifying transformation and a transgender symbol, is a repeating motif. Explicit queerness is also visible in when the march of people hoping to claim Prince Charming as their husband – the people include both women and men.
It’s not a perfect show, by any means. While the four prisms of glass work well as set pieces, you will likely spot stagehands reflected in the glass. The almost romantic song where Cendrillon and her downtrodden father escape the stepsisters and stepmother also comes off as awkward, borderline creepy, and should be cut.
Danielle de Niese as Cendrillon and Kate Lindsey as Prince Charming have stunning voices. De Niese, especially, has extraordinary stamina and tone. It is not unusual for two women to be the female leads. Massenet penned the original in the late 1800s for two women.
Kate Lindsey (Prince Charming): ‘It’s a story in which two women fall in love with each other.’
This is Lindsey’s third ‘trouser role’ at Glyndebourne, but she has done many in her career. She played her first male role at 18 years old.
‘We all have masculine and feminine within us,’ she told Gay Star News. ‘I don’t really think about playing a man or woman any more… It has to be about humanity and people and emotions. Men should be able to express emotions as they like.’
Lindsey said the queerness was important even from the rehearsals.
‘It’s a story in which two women fall in love with each other,’ she said. ‘And that love can be equally as real as the classic fairy tale.’
But were the cast and crew fearful of the audience?
‘The Glyndebourne audience is ready for the ride. They’re ready to be challenged,’ Lindsey said.
‘The purpose of art is to challenge the senses and our preconceived notions of things.’
She added: ‘A lot of thought if you get too concerned about the audience response, you put yourself in a trap. It was about believing it ourselves. We have to deliver it so can we feel it deep down in our gut?’
Bringing the queer to Cinderella at Glyndebourne
Cinderella, in the oldest stories, is very heteronormative. But there is also something very queer about the tale.
No matter what miseries or gifts the world sends you way, the ultimate power lies within yourself. The magic is not a pumpkin chariot or glass slippers, it’s about your inner strength.
Lindsey says: ‘This production creates this magical story of Cinderella that also offers a beautiful love story between two women.
‘Not only that, it’s a love story between Cinderella and herself.
She also said: ‘Before we can offer ourselves to loving someone else, we have to do that inner work. It’s a story of coming to terms with loving oneself, and then being able to find love outside. I think that’s quite special.’
The Glyndebourne Festival 2019 continues until 25 August. There is availability for Cendrillon until 2 August. Other operas at the festival this year include Rusalka (The Little Mermaid), Handel’s Rinaldo and The Magic Flute.