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Fairy tales are designed to give life’s brutal realities a sugar coating so that their warnings about what to expect are acceptable for children. Just occasionally, life’s fortunes merge in a way that subsumes the grim predictions and makes the sugar coating come true.

This is the lucky fate of the Paris based singer Louise Callinan, who almost has to pinch herself as she prepares for the lead role in Rossini’s opera, Cinderella. “It is fabulous to come home to sing,” she says with a grin. “There is no better homecoming than to be performing the lead.”

The eponymous heroine in Rossini’s comic opera is delighting in one of the rare occasions where a mezzo soprano gets star billing. “It’s challenging,” she says. “Nine out of 10 mezzo roles are supporting characters. I’m so lucky doesn’t every girl want to be Cinderella?”

Callinan, 31, has been singing full time for the past eight years and says the difficulties of the role, include high notes and some extended coloratura singing, are challenges that don’t faze her.

Opera Australia’s former musical director, Simone Young, cast her nearly two years ago and Callinan feels her voice has developed since then. Her career took off in 1998 when she became the first Australian to be accepted into the young artist program run by the Opera National de Paris.

Callinan was already based in London, but her savings were getting low when she won a $10,000 performing arts grant from the Brisbane City Council. This enabled her to return to Europe to audition for the Paris program. She had studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and graduated with a voice major in her music degree. Some of the singers who impressed her in competitions had been trained in Brisbane, so she moved north to study with their teacher, Jan Delpratt. “She is so pleased, she will be coming to Melbourne to hear me sing,” Callinan says.

Callinan loves everything about Cinderella, which she says has better music than another Rossini classic, The Barber of Seville. Only a year separates the writing of the two operas, although the composer gave himself little time to complete Cinderella, which was commissioned immediately after The Barber’s successful premiere in Rome in early 1816. But by late December, he still had not decided on a project.

The librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, wrote an account of his meeting with Rossini to discuss the project after a cast of singers was hired for the project. Ferretti proposed more that 20 subjects, only to have them all rejected.

Ferretti wrote that Rossini had already gone to bed when he murmured “Cinderella”. Rossini stirred under the covers and asked, “Would you have the courage to write me a Cinderella?” Ferretti responded, “Would you have the courage to set it to music?”

The rest is history. He completed the libretto in 22 days, and Rossini took only an another 48 hours to compose the music.

Cinderella premiered in Rome on January 25, 1817 and the opening night was not a great success because the singers were exhausted from the crash rehearsals. But Rossini’s optimism was vindicated within a month Cinderella had been performed 20 times. It went on to succeed around the world, opening in London within three years.

But when it reached Paris in 1822, there were objections to the substitution of a bracelet for Cinderella’s shoe. A journalist suggested this might have been introduced to suit a prima donna with ugly feet. The singer, Gertrude Righetti Giorgi, haughtily replied in a letter that the change had been made to suit the Vatican censor. “I have more to gain by adopting the original slipper than by clinging to the bracelet,” she boasted.

Callinan laughs and says she is not worried about the stage demands of the production, but she and her teachers are careful about what roles she accepts at this stage of her career. “Rossini is very good for my voice,” she says. “I would love to sing the bel canto works by Bellini and Donizetti but I have to build up my stamina first.”

She smiles at comparisons of her sound with that of the world’s most famous mezzo, Italy’s Cecilia Bartoli. “My voice is at the other of the scale to hers it’s more suited to romantic repertoire, while Bartoli favours Baroque composers.”

Callinan attended a performance of Puccini’s Tosca in the Concert Hall last week and came away impressed at the energy needed to project even big voices. “I realised how carpeted the hall is,” she says. “Now that I’m aware of it, I will have to sing with my whole body.”

She says her slim form cannot afford to be underweight to support her voice, but she finds that being aerobically fit helps her perform. “I realise I have to crawl before I can walk, and I have to build up more stamina.”
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