About 3 years ago, a fellow soprano-friend and I were in San Francisco and chatting about repertoire and roles when she suggested I look into the fairy godmother in Massenet’s take on the Cinderella story, Cendrillon. Massenet, I knew, but Cendrillon?
Back then, a YouTube search resulted in only about five Cendrillon clips that weren’t French dubs of the Disney movie, one of which was this recording of Esther Heideman singing La Fée’s aria “Ah! douce enfant.”
One listen, and I was in love.
Over the next few years I learned the aria even though it was on the obscure side and, therefore, not a great audition choice — I wanted to learn it just to learn it and to sing it, even if it was just for myself. I even had the opportunity to learn and perform La Fée’s second big scene, in Act 3, when she works a bit of magic to bring Cendrillon and the Prince together after their first encounter at the ball. Annalise Belnap sang Cendrillon, Kristin Roney sang the Prince, and during rehearsals the three of us would melt into puddles over the way Massenet spun these soaring, pleading lines.
As I worked on my coloratura skills, La Fée became one of my dream roles. It’s the ultimate gig: you get to look good – what self-respecting fairy godmother doesn’t? – and you get to sing out-of-this-world-amazing music in a handful of great scenes with plenty of breaks in between and without the stress of carrying the entire show. It’s kind of like singing Musetta in La bohème — show up in a great dress, bust out “Quando m’en vo’,” sing in a couple other scenes, and be Mimì’s supportive friend while she does her Puccini heroine thing.
Well, I’m thrilled to announce that my dream is coming true, and I’ll be singing La Fée this October with New York Lyric! I’m also really glad I already learned the Act 3 scene, which in my opinion is the most difficult with lots of arpeggios, staccati, scales, a few high Db’s, and a high Eb. I have some work to do before October to get the coordination back, but the practicing is going very well so far. The coloratura, both the agility and the high notes, are easier now than they were a year ago, and it is so validating to feel the difference.
There are many, many more clips on YouTube now, and it’s exciting to see this delightful and moving work gaining momentum. I imagine a big boost came from the 2011 performances at Covent Garden with Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon and Alice Coote as the Prince. Be sure to check out Act 3 and 4 on YouTube and Joyce DiDonato’s website for beautiful production photos from Santa Fe.
In addition to the opera showing up more often, “Ah! douce enfant” seems to be making a splash as an aria as well. It showed up in a Renée Flemming masterclass, and there are quite a few YouTube videos too. I don’t personally know any other soprano who uses it as an audition piece, but that’s not a reason not to do it myself …