Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. Hansel & Gretel comes to Seattle this fall in a compelling, whimsical, provocative production which should delight your eyes and ears and stimulate your imagination. French director Laurent Pelly’s contemporary interpretation of this famous German opera premiered at England’s Glyndebourne Festival in 2008, and has been a hit in a number of countries.
Hi, everyone, welcome to the podcast, this is Aidan Lang. Of course Hansel & Gretel is our opera up at the moment, so I’m going to be sharing some thoughts about this piece, a piece which I think has a lot more below than the surface than I think maybe we think from a cursory glance.WHO'S IT FOR?
I’m often asked who is this piece for, what is it about? What is Hansel & Gretel as an opera? It’s a curious thing because it does appeal to both children and adults alike, because you can approach it at more than one level. You can approach it from the point of view of its storyline, and that’s I think fairly clear, and probably most of us know the bare bones of the story of Hansel & Gretel.
But rather like Shrek or Toy Story, you know, films designed with the accompanying adults in mind, there’s something I think very strongly for adults to get out of this story as well. It touches on a really strong theme of poverty.
Poverty is the driver, and it’s very explicit in the text, poverty and hunger. If a family cannot provide enough money to sustain their two children, it means everyone’s going to go hungry. And then out of hunger comes desperation, and out of desperation we begin to see the norms of family life broken down.
That sounds a bit serious-minded for what people think is a rather simple tale. But it’s very clear that poverty is what propels the action. The mother finds herself, out of pure frustration with her economic conditions, sending her children out into the forest. And as soon as she’s sent the children out we have a very touching solo of huge remorse, where she admits that she’s losing her reason, that it is the lack of money which is pulling this family apart. So it’s got a very, very serious underbelly.
If poverty is the first driver, which leads to hunger and desperation, we have one clear thread. But there is another facet to the piece, and that is the idea of imagination. And we see this probably in a contrast between the Mother and Father, when Mother tells the Father that she’s sent them [their kids] out into the forest, and then the Father first turns almost to violence, he’s going to hit his wife, and then says, “Why are you being so stupid? What about the Ilsenstein Witch?” There’s then a remarkable solo for him, where the myth of the Witch, the terror and the nightmares...he conjures up the images of what this woman is going to do to their children. He tells a story, but at the same time, it’s the story of urban myth, if you like. He gives it a very compelling, almost nightmare-like manner, and that’s what’s causing the parents to rush off and try to find their children.
Cut to the children, alone in the forest, first of all where they feel terrified of the darkening forest, and the forest seems to take a life of its own, and they see shadows, and their imaginations are running riot; and a fantasy character, the Sandman, comes in, to calm their fears and put them to night, and then they sing their evening prayer. And then when they wake up they encounter the Witch’s house, which is the fulfillment of their deepest wish, not only for food but for sweet things.
They approach that imaginary world, I think, in a different manner [than their parents]. On the one hand, they’re innocent and wide-eyed; but at the same time, they encounter the reality of the Witch, not as a nightmare, but as a problem to be solved. I’ve done this piece many, many times and I’ve seen it: children react differently to their parents in watching the same thing. The children in the audience identify with Hansel and Gretel and see them on an adventure. It may be a scary adventure, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. I think they enter into the narrative path of the two characters with a strong sense of empathy, and an intuitive sense that somehow, however scary the Witch is, that somehow they’re going to find a way out of it. Even if they don’t know the story, they feel that it’ll turn right at the end. But the key thing is there’s a tough journey on the way, and they come out as better people, they come out of the theater as better equipped to face the real dangers of life, because they’ve found that if you don’t panic, if you actually work your way methodically, you can find a solution to the problem.
I think parents in the audience look at it from a parents’ point of view, and having seen in the first scene with the Father and the Mother this nightmare conjured up, they enter into the rest of the opera desperate for the safety of the children, imagining their own children are in a similar predicament. I think the children are scared in a different manner: scared with a sense that they’ll get out of it, whereas parents are mindful of their children’s safety, and in a sense are more scared of the Witch than the children are. It’s a beautiful problem to have, really. It captures the beauty of this piece, that the piece is designed for both children and adults. We have a Family Day on Sunday the 30th of October, with special family prices. And what I would really like to see is to see that afternoon really buzzing with families coming to engage with this piece, because it is a great piece for children to see. Each group is going to perceive the piece differently.
This production has been hugely successful. It’s played twice at Glyndebourne, they toured it around the nation, it’s played in Madrid, in Turin and I think it was Lyons as well. It’s been seen by many, many different audiences and it isa mark of its strength how well received it has been in different cultures. Everyone seems to have found something meaningful in it, but also had a really good time. Some of it is very funny! And I don’t want to sound too serious about it; it’s very easy to get stuck, in these podcasts, about the inner meaning. But actually, purely at a storytelling level it’s very clear, and some of it’s witty indeed. It’s a thoroughly good night out.ORIGINS: THE "HANSEL" FOLK TALE
The Brothers Grimm didn’t actually write this story. Originally, they were actually academics, and they were researching folklore. They were researching it because they felt that an understanding of a nation’s folkloric tradition was a very good identifier of the culture of that nation. And of course we’re talking about a Germany 55 years before unification, a time when Germany was composed of a number of small states, or sovereign states, or Länder. And there was a movement, even back in 1810, for a sense of a single German nation. So the Grimms were trying to identify what its culture was; and so they went around collecting folk tales.
Now, the thing about a folk tale is, it’s part of an oral tradition, and it’s always changing. And what I think is interesting is to trace the real origins of this story. It’s considered that it started way back in the 1320s, when there was nearly a decade of extreme famine, going right across northern Europe. We know that when there was no food, parents did abandon their children and leave them to die, because something had to give. And we also know this was a time people were so desperate, they actually turned to cannibalism. So the idea of this cannibalistic Witch is based almost certainly on genuine prevailing conditions, which of course in time, as man moved away from that time, it becomes a cautionary tale, by the time it gets to the early nineteenth century and the Grimms have captured it in writing, put it down, it’s been a long time from its historical antecedants.
Oral traditions of course are forever evolving. And actually what the Grimms did, because a lot of these stories were deemed far too gritty, and there was violence and some sexual suggestions, as well, with a rising bourgeois audience, they began to doctor the tale, to change them and make them more palatable for children. And they revised them a number of times, as well. So by the time you get to the 1860s, the tale has changed considerably; it’s been softened. And then we cut to 1890, where Humperdinck’s sister wants a little family entertainment, and suggests her brother write music to four little songs, to be inserted into a nursery-telling of Hansel & Gretel. By that time the whole thing had been softened yet still, and we see very strong elements of Christianity and a moral sense is brought to the piece, which is very far removed from the really violent beginning of the tale back in the fourteenth century and indeed its gritty telling at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The story changes as it goes along.THE STORY TODAY
With today’s theater we’re not happy now just to regurgitate the same-old same-old, rather sanitized version of the tale. We all know “Hansel and Gretel”, and we probably know it with a twentieth-century post-Disney saccharine look at the piece. Our audiences are looking for something more thought-provoking. The themes I outlined in the tale are food for a lot of thought and interesting and exciting theatrical exploration in the production of this work.
You know, this is the first time Seattle Opera has done Hansel & Gretel for twenty-three years, and I was very surprised to find that, because I did a little hunt on the big database where all opera companies’ performances are recorded now. You dial into performances of Hansel & Gretel for these next three months and there are a lot of performances going on around the world, the vast majority of them are in Germany. You probably go to five different cities in Germany to see five different productions of Hansel & Gretel. But it’s not done so often in the States. I think its time has come, and I think it’s partly because there has been in the past few years a number of very remarkable productions which have taken a deep look at the piece itself.
I suppose we have to go back a little bit to a very ground-breaking book by Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment, where Bettleheim takes these folk tales and shows how important they are as little life lessons for their young readership. That provoked thought that there’s more to it than just a straight narrative telling. Now, there’s a production in the repertory of the Met, by Richard Jones, which originated in the UK, and played in Chicago. Richard takes a really interesting creative look at the piece and emphasizes very much the hunger, starvation, and cannibalism side to it. The thing is actually quite horrific; by the time we get to the Witch’s scene it’s like watching Silence of the Lambs, in this nightmare-kitchen, with the Witch played by a man. You know, that’s one take. It’s been a hugely successful production, it’s been played pretty much non-stop around the world since 1998, when it was new.
I’ve seen other productions which have focused more on the idea of the neglect of the children; and sometimes pivotal to that is this idea that the Witch is played by a woman and identified with the Mother, as if the Witch and the Mother are two sides of the same coin, as perceived by the children. They’re seeing their mother as an ogre, and they then meet an ogre who wants to consume them. That’s one thread.
The production we have, which comes from Glyndebourne, I think is really interesting, because the director, Laurent Pelly, is very clear that the conceptual underpinning of the production is only that. It is an underpinning, but the production isn’t about the ideas he raises. The production actually is a very compelling, very energetic, sometimes very witty telling of the story. But just below the surface are some very thought-provoking ideas.
We all agree that the driver to the tale is the poverty. So he asked himself the question: “What in today’s society makes the poverty?” He puts forward in his production the idea that today’s poor are ironically the result of rampant consumerism, or if you like of capitalism; and indeed of the pollution which somes from that endless manufacture of things to feed our lust for objects and food. To understand this underlying conceptual approach, you need to look at the scenes in reverse order; that actually in Act 3, the Witch’s house is made up of the sweets and cookies and candy shelves of a supermarket. It’s not set in a supermarket; it’s actually a house, and the house is also the factory which produces the cookies.
And then, working backwards into the forest, we see a forest which has clearly been ruined by pollution. So the idea is the factory we’ve seen, this temple of consumerism, the back-effect of that is the pollution it causes. And then when we go to Act One and see the house, which is set in the forest, as they live, it’s actually a gigantic and totally unrealistic cardboard box. But we know, as we look around Seattle, that one resort to homeless people is to use the insulating qualities of cardboard to provide some sort of shelter.
The cardboard box is the end that we chuck away from having purchased our product; the supermarkets will have all their stuff in cardboard boxes and they throw them out. If you look behind any supermarket there’s always that mountain of cardboard box to hopefully be repurposed. So there’s sort of a backward path from Act Three, where we understand his core idea is that the poverty which we see around us today is actually caused by the market forces and the consumerism which propels our society. So we can’t have it both ways.
I think it’s a really, really telling point. But I do want to emphasize that I don’t think the production is about that. I think the production tells the story, first and foremost, in a very, very engaging manner. But it’s a very thought-provoking production, because you then ponder what was actually being suggested there...rather than some productions, where it’s only about the concept, and the danger is you feel you’ve just been receiving a lecture. I don’t think this production works that way at all.
This production is a very Seattle production. You know we have one of the first recycling plants here, down in Sodo. Here in Seattle we’re very conscious of the effects of this rampant consumerism. So it struck me that this audience here at Seattle Opera is one which is really going to tune into this very interesting look at contemporary life.HUMPERDINCK & WAGNER
One aspect of Hansel & Gretel is of course that Humperdinck met Wagner in Italy and ended up assisting him on Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882. And this opera is sometimes called “Wagner’s 11th opera.” What Hansel doesn’t have is the dark chromaticism of Götterdämmerung. It certainly doesn’t have the built-in seriousness of thought of Parsifal. What it does have is an astonishingly varied and rich orchestral score, one which probably owes more to Meistersinger, I think, than to Parsifal or the Ring. But it has a lot of middle parts of the orchestra that are very fast-moving and give an endlessly shifting harmonic language and color. It’s a glorious score. It’s absolutely for the non-Wagnerians; but those of you who love Wagner will recognize the influence of Wagner on the score.
And I suppose what makes the difference is Humperdinck’s use of folk songs. Some of the vocal writing is very, very melodic. The Witch, I think, is a different kettle of fish; it’s actually a very, very hard role to sing, because she’s not really singing melody as such. But a lot of what Hansel and Gretel sing are basically tunes. So there’s this rather beguiling mix of fascinating orchestration against a melodic line which is often quite straightforward and melodic.
It’s not that long a piece. The first half, which is Acts One and Two, are just under an hour, and Act Three is about 42 minutes. So it’s about two and a quarter hours with interval. It’s not a long work, and I think that’s right for the material.PRODUCING THE OPERA
The first thing you have to get right is the casting of Hansel and Gretel. You sort of need a Wagnerian soprano—not maybe a Brünnhilde, but certainly a Gutrune or something, who happens to look 6. Which isn’t the easiest thing! One of the tricks really is the way that the Hansel and Gretel behave. Obviously you do go for younger singers; you need to have a singer who has a plausible playing age at the young end. Children are often very hyperactive, and I think this production rather well captures that hyperactivity, so that the children’s behavior gets marked by the way they act.
When you come to the two parents, of course, if they have children of 6, 7, 8, they’re not that old as parents. They’re not grandparents. So it’s important that the parents are of the right generation as well. Seems to me that they behave more childlike, in their scene together, than the two children do!
Then you come to the question of the Witch. There is a long-standing tradition, especially in Europe, of the Witch being played by a tenor. It’s a tradition which Humperdinck sanctioned himself. You probably see it 50/50 if you see this piece done in Europe. Now, obviously if the production is playing the dichotomy between the Mother and the Witch, then you play it with a mezzo soprano. But I think if done well, a man playing the Witch gives a real edge and an unnerving quality to the character, which is probably what we need today. If done badly—and I’m thinking of the probably European tradition of the pantomime dame—the popular entertainment which you see...well, around Europe, maybe especially in the UK—of a rather ridiculous woman who is played by a man, which emphasizes the ridiculousness of it. Now, if the Witch is played that way, then actually she becomes a figure of fun, and you lose that danger.
But I think if played interestingly, and this production by Laurent Pelly does that, and indeed the Richard Jones production did it that way, as well, there can be created something very sinister with this character, and unnerving, and frightening. For me, I think the piece needs to have that energy in Act 3, so it doesn’t just become a saccharine entertainment. So that is what we have today. You need a tenor—the best guideline is probably that he sings Mime, especially in Siegfried. It needs a voice with some body, but not too much body, but also the flexibility and the ability to play character. There are certain tenors who rather specialize in this role, and do it very well.
Orchestrally, one of the problems is, it’s a large orchestra. For the conductor, just keeping it down; or allowing those moments where the inner writing is very thick, to allow the balance between the orchestra and the stage is always a challenge with this piece in certain sections. Normally when Gretel is singing.
It is a piece which offers endless scope to an imaginative director. Because at the end of the day this is a work of imagination. “Hansel & Gretel” was fundamentally part of an oral tradition, whenever you used to tell your children a bedtime story you would extemporize if need took you, or if your offspring was awake and wanted more. So even the teller uses his or her imagination. This is a work based on imagination. And I think today we have a duty, if you like, to present a production which fuels the audience’s imagination and thought.
There is of course a built-in paradox. If you take an oral tradition and write it down, as the Brothers Grimm did, and of course as Humperdinck has now done, then you are in danger of killing the audience’s imagination, because you are telling them what to see, rather than it being in their minds. Today, we have a more imaginative approach to directing. With the right director I think this piece can fuel the audience’s thought and fantasy and make every person in the audience receive it in a slightly different way. Which is great, and how opera should be.