Opera North Blog

Hansel and Gretel in a nutshell

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Everything you need to know about Hansel and Gretel in one place — right here!

Once upon a time…

Hansel and Gretel is based on the well-loved fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.

In a poverty stricken household, a brother and sister (Hansel and Gretel) are home alone with their chores. Hungry and bored, they abandon their work to sing and dance, but are discovered by their mother, who is so angry that she accidently spills what was to have been their supper! She sends the children into the enchanted forest to hunt for something else to eat, and so begins a great adventure…

In the forest, Hansel and Gretel encounter the benevolent magical forces of the Sandman (who sends them to sleep) and the Dew Fairy (who awakens them), but then stumble upon a mysterious, edible house, which turns out to be inhabited by a terrifying, child-eating Witch. Will Hansel and Gretel escape with their lives, or will they be cooked and eaten?

Who are the characters?

Hansel (mezzo-soprano)
Gretel – his sister (soprano)
Gertrud – their mother (often mezzo-soprano, but our Gertrud is sung by a soprano) 
Peter – their father (baritone)
The Witch (sung by the same singer as Gertrud) 
The Sandman (soprano)
The Dew Fairy (soprano)

In our production, Gertrud and the Witch are played by the same person, as the Witch becomes the children’s fantasy version of their mother. She is everything their mother isn’t – generous, nurturing… but unfortunately a cannibal!

What is the music like?

Engelbert Humperdinck’s score for Hansel and Gretel is full of enchanting folk music-inspired themes – some pre-existing German tunes, and some ‘folk songs’ specifically written for the opera! These include the beautiful ‘Evening Prayer’, sung by the two children as they are dropping off to sleep in the forest, imagining the angels that will surround them. Hear it below from The Metropolitan Opera's production (2011). 

However, plenty of Wagernian-esque tension and drama is created by the orchestra (particularly during the Act II prelude ‘Witches Ride’), painting the inescapably dark side of this story and helping develop an often sinister atmosphere.  

What is this production like?

Edward Dick’s brand new and visually innovative production explores the perils of growing up and the imaginative world of creative play for today’s tech-savvy, YouTube-ready children. 

Hansel and Gretel play in their parents' house, filming each other with hand held cameras. They create magical new worlds through the films they make, with video projections creating a completely immersive fantasy experience within the set design, as the children journey deep into the world of the fairy tale. 

As we get further into the story, this happy ‘play space’ begins to disintegrate into something more sinister. The children are visited by memories from the past (both reassuring and terrifying), discover an unexpected abundance of food, and encounter their own mother re-imagined…

Who was the composer?

Hansel and Gretel was written by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), not to be confused with pop star ‘Gerry’ Dorsey, who took the composer’s name as his own in 1966 in order to revive a slumping career!

Humperdinck was a protégé of Richard Wagner, and was invited by the composer to assist him with preparations for the premiere of his Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1880. However, for most of his life, Humperdinck was best known as a teacher/lecturer, as Hansel and Gretel turned out to be his one and only (but pretty big!) hit.

Humble beginnings

The opera Hansel and Gretel began life in 1890 as a small handful of songs, written at the request of Humperdinck’s sister (Adelheid Wette) to accompany a Christmas play that she was writing for her children, based on the famous Grimm brothers’ fairy tale.

The following year, Humperdinck developed these musical ideas into a singspiel (musical play with dialogue) and then, with the help and encouragement of fellow composer Richard Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier), into a full-scale opera, with quite complex music for both Hansel and Gretel to sing.

The opera premiered in Weimar in December 1893 conducted by Strauss himself, who loved the work’s individuality and German folk influences. It was an instant success – its popular storyline and imaginative score capturing the hearts of the public – and went on to receive wide international recognition within just a couple of years.

Did you know?

Hansel and Gretel was first performed on 23 December, and has been closely associated with Christmas ever since. Today, it is most often performed around the festive period, and the making of ‘Gingerbread Houses’ has become a seasonal tradition.

As well as assisting Wagner, Humperdinck also served as music tutor to his son, Siegfried. It’s a small world…

The main belt asteroid 9913 Humperdinck, discovered in 1977, was named after the composer. 

Hansel and Gretel is sung in English with English titles, and lasts approximately three hours including one interval. For more info or to book tickets, visit Hansel and Gretel webpage.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North. 


Images:

Hansel and Gretel artwork © Opera North 2016
Hansel and Gretel production photography © Robert Workman 
Engelbert Humperdinck, c.1909

What you say

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David Reston said ago

Enthusiastic, charming, restorative, so innovative a set and pripoduction. I was captivated. The "girls" were briliant singers and actors. Witchy mum is such a comprimario star. Dad was good and his domestic and economic predicament were sympathetically presented and rejected by his woefully slutty wife. Long may this production shine and be sung.

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