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Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Not Just for Children

The audience at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Theatre bore out what the Dresser suspected—Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel is not just for children. Attending the December 7, 2007, performance were many childless adults who, judging by the consumption of such noisy items as potato chips, may have been attending their first opera. Snarkiness aside, the Dresser, who was experiencing for the first time Humperdinck’s masterpiece with libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette, was impressed by the vocal gymnastics required of the singers. Historically significant is that the December 23, 1893, premiere was conducted by Richard Strauss (known for his groundbreaking 1906 opera Salome) who said that Hansel and Gretel was "a masterpiece of the highest quality… all of it original, new, and so authentically German."


This Washington National Opera production under their “Access to Opera” program featured a cast of current and former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. Most of these particular young artists have appeared in WNO’s main stage productions. For example, soprano Amanda Pabyan, who creates a lively believable child as Gretel

and does justice to the vocal challenges demanded by Humperdinck’s music, played the Queen of the Night in the 2005 Die Zauberflöte (Mozart's The Magic Flute). Also soprano JiYoung Lee, who provides outstanding performances as Sandman and Dew Fairy,

has been seen in such WNO productions as Das Rheingold (2006 as Woglinde), La Clemenza di Tito (2006 as Servilia) and La Filled du Regiment (2007 as Marie).


Although there wasn’t anything technically amiss with Leslie Mutchler’s delivery of Hansel, the Dresser could not suspend belief to accept that Hansel as a character is a boy but the singer is a young woman. Many operatic roles, such as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) successfully employ women in what is known as “pants roles.” Often Hansel is cast as a mezzo-soprano. The challenge then is how to make the female singer appear to the audience as a boy.


Another less problematic but interesting cast choice was African-American soprano Aundi Marie Moore as the mother of Hansel and Gretel. In the Grimm fairy tale on which Adelheid Wette based the libretto for this opera, the mother is a stepmother who tells her husband when they are faced with starvation that he must take the children to the woods and leave them there. Although Wette, who asked her brother to write this opera for her children had cut out the cruel stepmother and her demand to her husband to abandon his children, when director David Gately cast a singer who visually stands apart from cast members playing Hansel, Gretel and the children’s father, the allusion to the original fairy tale comes quickly to mind. If Wette had been cast in such roles as Sandman, Dew Fairy, or Witch, the Dresser would not have noticed the casting choice and ventured into what might be frowned on as an unPC remark. What comes to mind for the Dresser is that when Director Nancy Rhodes was preparing Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On for its premiere, Rhodes kept shaking her head about all the svelte young women who wanted the role of Gertrude Stein.


What the Dresser liked best about the WNO production was Robin Vest’s sets (the tilted house where Hansel and Gretel lived, the gnarly barren trees of the forest with abstract angels made of crinoline fabric, the elaborate gingerbread house of the witch)
and Timm Burrow’s fanciful costumes for Dew Fairy, Witch and the woodland animals.

At some point in the history of Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck’s Wagnerian-sized orchestra was whittled down to eight instruments. This size orchestra seems reasonable so that voices on stage are not overwhelmed by the instrumentation. This was the size of the orchestra playing for WNO’s production, but for some reason the Dresser yearned for a fuller richer sound. Possibly the size of the Lincoln Theatre was a little bit too large for the volume being produced and may have been part of the reason why unschooled audience members did not pay full attention to the overture and intermezzo compositions.

The Dresser felt her first experience with Hansel and Gretel was good and left her with wanting to see other productions and to hear Humperdinck’s music which blends familiar German folk tunes such as Suzy and her shoeless geese with the composer’s challenging original music.

Katherine Young’s poem addresses the blissful ignorance children exhibit regarding what they owe their parents which dovetails with the story of Hansel and Gretel.

(for Alexander)

[T]ho’ a Child be ever so dutiful it never repays back the cares troubles and Anxieties which Parents undergo in the raising them to the State of Manhood.
— Michael Cadet Young to his son, Thomas, ca. 1769


Weed of the countryside
sprung up in swamps, over septic tanks
neither hardy nor adaptable as dandelion
but of that ilk, commonplace.
One rare summer day, silk strands
from a far-off plant
slithered across suburban lawns
into well-kept gardens
where weeds were called “wildflowers”
where cut stones maintained borders
real and imagined —
hair of milkweed sifting through thumbs
stroking, combing, caressing a cheek —
crinkle of skin like chitin
tough, reluctant in its new landscape.


What did I give you, child of my body?
Silk of my spirit, steel of my hide?
Are you roving weed like me, or will you plant yourself
defenseless, among foxglove and roses?


Child in the kitchen imitates
the whir of the coffee grinder;
Papa pours him a cup of milk.
Every moment now watching
every moment awaiting
the crackling, peeling, bursting
seeds on streamers
sallying forth
mutatis mutandis
please god mutable world.

by Katherine Young
from Gentling the Bones

Copyright © 2007 Katherine Young

All photos by Karin Cooper


Comments (1)


I'm trying to get in contact with Karin Cooper regarding usage rights for photos from 2007 Hansel & Gretel, can anyone help?

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 11, 2007 10:39 AM.

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