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by Ed Emery

Buried in the small print of London's theatre listings, an item of news creates a buzz among those who know about these things. La Gatta Cenerentola is coming to town. Phone round a few friends, organise a group booking for the evenings in question. Because a performance of La Gatta is not to be missed.

I have had the musics of this show in my head for the best part of twenty years. Taped from a record, barely even labelled, but played over and over, because the songs reach out and take you, somehow, captive. And now the extraordinary good fortune to be asked to translate the libretto. And hence to write a small commentary.

Defining the Undefinable

So what is La Gatta?

It is a level of the arcane, the unaccustomed and the incomprehensible presented with all the musical verve that you could wish for.

At the same time it deals in universals. Primordial human values.

Listen it it with your eyes shut. Search for the moments where you can engage with the show's meanings. Near the end of Act Three there is a scene in which insults are traded and a fight begins to develop. This is the "Scena delle ingiurie" – the "Insult Scene". What do you hear?

Four voices of women. The Washerwomen. Arguing with brawling venom and invective. The idiom is Neapolitan. Somebody has started counting – "One, two, three, four..." – and in between the counting they invoke the names of saints and God the Father. A rowdiness develops, a fight seems about to start, and just at that moment a male voice calls for a tarantella. The orchestra strikes up. A chorus of men launch into a song which sings the praises of six sisters and their sexual parts. It begins to dawn on you that the women's roles here are being sung by men. And they begin trading massive insults across the stage – insults that seem plumbed from the depths of their being. Their target is another woman, the Stepmother, and by the timbre of the voice you know that she too is played by a man. She returns the insults with catty vigour and inventiveness.

Begin to isolate the elements in all this: A density of meanings and double entendre. The intercrossing of sexual innuendo and role-plays. Trans-sexuality. A rude brawling vernacular. Strains of folk idioms in a music that also has touches of the opera buffa. An earthiness of imagery. The extraordinary quality of voice that the singers have. And the sheer physical energy of the material. It is clear that we are in a very, very special place.

But how to define it as a whole? The director himself, Roberto de Simone, makes an attempt in his Introduction. Self-confessedly he fails. As an artefact La Gatta is so many-layered and multifarious that it defies definition.

He offers an initial account, translated here in paraphrase:

"When I began thinking about La Gatta Cenerentola, I thought spontaneously of a melodrama. A melodrama that was ancient and modern at one and the same time. Just as fairy stories (favole) are both old and new at the moment when they are told. A melodrama as a fairy story. We would have people singing as a way of speaking. And speaking as a way of singing. And much would also be understood from that which is not actually spoken in words. So we had to decide which words we would dress in sounds, and which sounds we would dress with words, and where we would make do without using words at all. We would use ways of speaking which were different from those that you'd use to sell cans of tinned meat. They would be the sounds of a different world, in which all languages are one, in expressing the universal experiences of love and hate, of violences that are done and suffered in the same way by everybody. We would develop another way of speaking and expressing meaning – not only through grammar and vocabulary, but also through everyday objects. And through the things that people everywhere have done for thousands of years – giving birth, making love, dying, feeling joy, feeling fear, cursing and being cursed, toiling in physical labour, and enjoying the playfulness of play. Like the sun and moon do, and have done, and always will do..."

His account is also a challenge. In a way it seeks to put La Gatta beyond the range of textual criticism, as if it has a mystical life beyond apprehension.

The critical eye rises to the challenge. For instance, we might locate the piece (what do we call it... a piece of musical theatre... an erudite pantomime... a folk opera...?) in a historical context, and thus fix at least some of its meanings definitively.

The History of Cenerentola

What is the history of La Gatta? Where does it come from?

It is a reworking of a version of the Cinderella story taken from the Pentameron of Giambattista Basile, b. Naples 1575. A Neapolitan soldier, public official, poet, and short-story writer, whose collection of 50 rumbustious tales (Lo Cunto de li Cunti) written in the Neapolitan language was one of the earliest fairy story collections based on folk tales, and provided material for later writers, such as the Brothers Grimm. His stories included original versions of Puss in Boots, Rapunzel, Snow White, the Three Oranges, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella.

In 1976 Roberto de Simone composed and put together a musical version of this Cinderella story, building it around song drawn from the folk traditions of Naples and its surrounding countryside. The show was presented at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, and was immediately a major critical success. It toured Italy, running up 400 performances, and in two subsequent revivals it toured internationally.

However it is not just a story of Cinderella. It is a complex reworking of many possible stories of Cinderella, drawn from local folk traditions and from historical sources going back to the Middle Ages. It plays openly with sexuality and violence, with gender roles, with magic and local imaginaries, and with hopes for change in a better world.

Reworking these themes into a kind of popular mini-opera, it creates a sumptuously-dressed spectacle, a play that is at the roots of pantomime as we know it, and simultaneously a celebration of the mystery that is Naples.


To understand La Gatta, you have to know that all human life is there, from birth to death and everything in between. As De Simone himself puts it,:

"In the story of Cenerentola, there is the story of a whole people: their frustrations, their aspirations, their sufferings, their desire for change, their natural religion which has been repressed by the official powers that be, the aspects of a matriarchy which has been subjected to the violence of patriarchy, and the consequent negative aspect of that matriarchy after what it has suffered from patriarchy."

Before we deal with the generalities, let's answer the question from the lady at the back of the stalls:

But why is it called The Cat Cinderella?

In short: it is no accident that this Cinderella has elements of cat in her personality. In part her cat-nature derives from Basile himself. In part it is indicative of the erudite and politically-worked vocation of La Gatta.. De Simone explains that the roots of the Cinderella story lie in the tradition of animal transformation folk tales. In an alternative Neapolitan variant Cenerentola appears as a fine-feathered hen belonging to a washerwoman, and each night sheds her feathers to go to the ball with the prince. In the area around Naples cat and hen alike are local cult figures with maternal associations, and enter Catholic Christianity as attributes of the Virgin Mary. But more than this: the cat is a nocturnal animal that sees in the dark. It is associated with the devil. It also eats mice, and in local folk traditions the mouse has a distinct phallic connotation. So Cinderella's cat-nature is an expression of her sexuality. In Naples, in fact, a woman's sex has the nickname of "cat" – a mucella. That said, we move on.

Popular song – research – and political movement

The motivating impulses of La Gatta are many and varied. In part the show is a reflection on sexuality, gender, sexual repression and a possible future liberation. In part it is the product of a very specific conjuncture of the late 1960s and early 1970s – the moment when, worldwide, the impulse to political and revolutionary change joined with an in-depth research into popular and folk forms of music to create something entirely new.

The folk musics of yesterday were researched and found new life in the contestational youth cultures of today. In the United States, folk ballads gave us Bob Dylan and the collecting of blues music provided a base for a decade of rock bands. In Greece, folk-song collecting by Theodorakis and others created a mass musical culture based on indigenous forms. And in Italy the movement took the form of in-depth ethno-musicological research, collecting, archivising and recording of folk song. For instance, in the work of the Il Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano (1962-68) and the Ernesto de Martino Institute in Milan, and the recordings (now available in re-release) of Dischi del Sole.

This then fed immediately into performance, and it is fair to say that De Simone's La Gatta, although a distinctly separate initiative, follows in direct line of descent from Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano's Bella Ciao (1964) and the Dario Fo-directed Ci Ragiono e Canto (1964-5). The folk songs and political songs of an earlier age (from the Middle Ages down to the Resistance songs of the partisans in World War II) were collected, were performed publicly, were recorded and sold in shops, and to the extent that they were contestational, they were sung by the kids in the street. No analysis of Italian revolutionary political culture of the 1970s is complete without an understanding of this moment.

Something of the flavour of this research work comes through in the introduction to a song book published in 1976 (La Chitarra e il potere, Savelli, Rome, p. 11):

"...popular song is always oppositional song, and therefore is always in some sense 'political'. Songs of toil, tavern songs, prison songs and religious songs have always expressed a view of the world that is antagonistic to that of the ruling class, either by overturning that world-view or by contributing to the creation of an alternative conception of work, of popular celebrations, of justice, and of religious observance. When such conceptions transform into an organised collective heritage, they transform rejection into struggle, resistance into attack, desertion into boycotting, prison escapes into destruction of the prisons, work-to-rules into a rejection of wage labour and cultural subordination into a struggle for hegemony. Within this transition, popular song changes from being simply a testimony to the ongoing existence of an "other" culture... and becomes political song, [...] and an allusion to a conception of the world that is revolutionary..."

The confrontation on this cultural terrain had real substance. For instance, the uproar caused at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto in 1964, when Bella Ciao was presented. The historic anti-war song "O Gorizia tu sei maledetta" had been sung from the stage. It attacked the military generals responsible for the disasters of World War I. Immediately after the show (since censorship was still in force) the carabinieri mounted the stage, accused the singer of having sung a verse that was not in the official script, and threatened him with arrest for slandering the armed forces. An artillery colonel left the theatre in tears, threatening to sue...

Voice and dialect

Twelve years later, in 1976, the first production of La Gatta caused a similar stir at the Festival di Due Mondi. Here the contestational aspect was different. It dealt in the area of sentiment, emotion and sexuality rather than class oppression. But the show was similarly based in diligent ethnomusicology, research into oral traditions, and the re-presentation of those traditions in a modern subversive format. In that period De Simone was working in collaboration with the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, a singing group which still specialises in research and performance of the popular song of Naples and the Mediterranean region as a whole.

In his view there can be no easy categorisations of "Neapolitan music" into high-brow, low-brow, folk music, classical music etc. Before it was decimated by the plague of 1656, Naples had been one of the most densely populated capitals of Europe. Peasants moved to the city to avoid the appalling poverty of the countryside, and they brought their rural cultures with them. As a result ancient peasant traditions of song, dance and religious ritual find full expression within the "dominant" culture of Naples.

This, in part, is what La Gatta researches. But more than that. Two hundred years ago the music historian Charles Burney, on his musical tour of Italy and France, arrived in Naples and was struck by the extraordinary quality of popular Neapolitan song. He observed how the singers passed into "modulations so strange that they are almost impossible to imagine". It is just this quality of folk-voice that La Gatta sets out to explore. It has succeeded in creating a particular voice, a style of singing, which is crucial to the quality of the piece. Of the present cast members, the casting of Cenerentola (Marina Bruno) apparently took two years of auditions. De Simone says: "In this kind of singing you cannot use singers that have a formal academic training. The vocal quality must be that of the popular tradition." At the same time the production is built on techniques of polyphony, choral singing and counterpoint.

The show also draws on the stylistic and vocal traditions of the opera buffa, musical comedies in local dialect which flourished in Naples in the early eighteenth century and which had links with the old Commedia dell'arte. And here we find suggestive continuities with our own traditions of pantomime.

As regards the language of La Gatta, it provides fuel aplenty for controversy. First, is Neapolitan a language, or a dialect, or an idiom or what? Second, is it a single linguistic form spoken across a range of social classes, or is it a ghettoised minority form? Third, there are parts of La Gatta which are incomprehensible even to Neapolitans, and where's the point in that? Without trying to provide answers, I would simply observe that another Italian ethnolinguistic performer, Dario Fo, is in the habit of performing two-hour monologues spoken in substantially invented sixteenth-century dialects of the Po Valley, and the miracle of theatre makes even the incomprehensible comprehensible.

The characters of La Gatta

While it is hard not to be taken by the strong on-stage characterisations of the Stepmother, Cinderella, the Sisters etc, De Simone stresses that they are also to be read as archetypes, as symbols. They embody a whole input of symbolic meanings which can be read, in one optic, as an entirely Freudian text. Among the various "meanings" of Cinderella, the author offers the following:

In Neapolitan culture, there still exists a strong culture of matriarchy. Historically matriarchy was strong in the countryside, but in sixteenth century Naples patriarchy was already getting the upper hand. In this context Cenerentola becomes the typical female figure as conceived in patriarchy – she is the "virgin", the negative victory of patriarchy over matriarchy. She is to be virgin and pure both before and after giving birth – hence the symbolism of the "loss" of the slipper, which is then regained. The Stepmother, on the other hand, represents the old matriarchy subjected to and redefined by patriarchal power, to become the oppressive "phallic mother".

In characterising Cenerentola, De Simone cites specifically the rituals associated with young girls arriving at their first menstruation. In many societies a menstruating woman is considered to be polluted, and is shut out of society – so, in this story, Cinderella is considered "ugly" and "dirty", is excluded from everyday household life and is forced to live by the hearth. At puberty the girl is often entrusted to a second mother, who gives her the secrets of sexuality, and she takes on a new identity as woman before she re-emerges into society – which gives us the well-known elements of Cinderella's fairy godmother, and her dressing for the ball.

"You shall go to the ball, Cinderella..."

As regards "going to the ball", this too is full of symbolic meanings. De Simone notes that dance is historically associated with religious observation. Popular dance (ballo popolare) takes place in association with celebrations of the Madonna, and people dance in the sacred space in front of the church associated with the given celebration. Once it took place actually inside the church, but it was banned from here by the ecclesiastical hierarchies. So Cinderella's "going to the ball" has symbolic meanings at multiple levels.

De Simone's La Gatta is constructed around popular forms of song – for instance the characteristically Neapolitan form of the villanella. It is also built around regional folk dance forms – tarantellas, tammuriatas, morescas, etc. These in themselves would take an entire article to explain.

For the moment, suffice to say that in De Simone's use of the tarantella there is a deliberate reference to dancing mania and possession (tarantism). In the studies that have been made of this very common phenomenon in southern Italy, a typical symptom is the desire to wear rich and sumptuous clothing – precisely the desire that is evinced in the Cinderella story. Furthermore, the scene of Cenerentola's dancing with the king is equivalent to the encounter with Saint Paul in the tarantella exorcism. Here it shares stylistic elements with the traditional style of tarantella: the encounter, followed by formal courtesies, then the onset of desire, the fear of the relationship, and finally the instinct to flee, and the gesture of running away. It is worth noting (the loss-of-shoe thematic) that in all the popular tarantellas the women always remove their shoes and dance in bare feet...

Naples as "Other"

In Dario Fo's 1997 show Il Diavolo con le zinne, the dry-as-a-stick elderly housekeeper of an upright judge is possessed by devils. Thereupon she becomes sexuality incarnate, and she is seized by an uncontrollable urge to dance the tarantella. In this persona she abandons her native Lombard dialect and begins to speak pure Neapolitan. In Fo's vision Naples – female, sexual, fecund – is explicitly counterposed to the repressed, arid, intellectualising sterility of the North. And this is the image of the city that we have in La Gatta.

Over and above all, the show is a celebration of Naples. Naples as earthy matriarchy. Naples as transgressive. Naples as the "Other" for the rest of Italy. The Naples that has fallen to foreign invaders one after the other – liberators and oppressors alike. The Naples who, time after time, has lost her virginity:

"Napoli, Napoli, donna bella
Ha perso la chianella
Al re di Aragona e di Turchia
Ha perso anche la fantasia..."

"Naples, Naples, beautiful woman,
Lost her slipper
To the king of
Aragon and the king of Turkey,
And she lost her dreams too..."

Epilogue: Gender and sexuality

At a key moment of La Gatta, having explored a whole canon of Freudian concerns from incest through infanticide to matricide and much besides, there is an elaborate, vulgar and sexually provocative stand-off between the Feminella – a transvestite man – and the Washerwomen. It ends in the transvestite being goaded into suicide. Whether or not you choose to read this as a political statement, it poses the issue of gender and sexuality right at the heart of La Gatta – an issue which then finds its resolution in the poignant soliloquy of the Gypsy Woman that closes the show and echoes in your head for a long time after:

"Ma io credo ca pe' sta' bbuono a stu munno
o tutte ll'uommene avarriano 'a essere femmene
o tutt' 'e femmene avarriano 'a essere uommene
o nun ce avarriano 'a essere
né uommene né femmene..."


"I think that to make this world a decent place
Either all the men would have to be women
Or all the women would have to be men
Or there would have to be
Neither men nor women..."


Roberto De Simone (b. Naples 1933) is a musician, a composer, a theatre director and musicologist. He has directed operas in the world's major opera houses, and from 1981 to 1987 was artistic director of the San Carlo Theatre in Naples. He is currently director of the Music Conservatoire at San Pietro a Majella, Naples. Writings include Disordinata Storia della Canzone Napoletana, Valentino, Ischia, 1994.

The Media Aetas company, who are touring the present edition of La Gatta, have a 20-year history of musical and operatic stagings of works, ranging from Pergolesi (La Serva Padrona) and eighteenth-century opera buffa, through Stravinsky (Pulcinella and The Soldier's Tale) to the modern idioms of jazz and blues. They have also staged original works conceived by Roberto De Simone, a many-faceted output ranging from sixteenth-century song to a Requiem for Pier Paolo Pasolini.. A musicological feast, backed by many years of musicological research and documentation. Four of the original NCCP members are in the present touring cast – Rino Marcelli (the Stepmother), Virginio Villani (chorus leader and Prologue), Giovanni Mauriello and Patrizia Spinosi – providing a precious continuity with the original production.

Media Aetas is developing a site at:

The Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare (NCCP) has a web page at:

The full symbolism of this piece is not easily available to audiences coming to view it unprepared, nor is it available through the songs, which are extraordinarily opaque and synthetic. What is really needed is a full translated version of the text (La Gatta Cenerentola, Einaudi, Torino, 1977), together with a critical apparatus. This is something that we are thinking of doing.

The original cast recording of La Gatta, with Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, was issued by EMI with the catalogue number EMI 1182158. The Dischi del Sole records, an archive of the popular and political song movement of Italy in the 1960s-70s, have been re-released in both CD and vinyl formats by Ala Bianca of Modena.

La Gatta Cenerentola will be performed at Sadler's Wells, London, on 2-6 November 1999, as part of the Italian Festival 1999. Further details at:


Ed Emery