Hansel & Gretel
At Seattle Opera October 2016
Music by Englebert Humperdinck
Long Story Short:
Two kids vs. a wicked witch.
Hansel is a hungry little boy (played by a woman).
Gretel, his sister, is a clever little girl.
Rosina Daintymouth loves feeding (and then feeding on) children. She is played by a man.
Mother has more problems than patience.
Father, who enjoys a drink after work, makes and sells brooms.
The Sandman is good at helping children fall asleep.
The Dew Fairy helps people wake up, especially if they’re camping out with no tent.
The other characters are forest-dwellers, angels, and children turned into gingerbread.
Where & When?
A deep, dark, and dangerous forest.
About the Composer
Not to be confused with the British pop singer of yesteryear (who renamed himself after our hero), Englebert Humperdinck was a late ninteenth-century German Romantic composer best known for his popular Hansel and Gretel. Humperdinck was 25 years old when he met Richard Wagner on holiday in the south of Italy. The lion of Bayreuth invited the young musician to tutor Wagner’s son Siegfried in music, and Humperdinck quickly became a member of Wagner’s “Nibelung chancellery,” a group of young musicians, composers, and acolytes who assisted Wagner in Bayreuth. One of Humperdinck’s earliest claims to fame came during rehearsals of the first production of Parsifal, in Bayreuth in 1882, when Wagner asked Humperdinck to write more music for an orchestral interlude, to cover a scene change that was taking longer than originally expected. (They sped up the transition, so Humperdinck’s contribution did not, in the end, get incorporated into Parsifal.) Following Wagner’s death, Humperdinck became a professor of music in Frankfurt.
Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, had adapted a couple fairy-stories as children’s plays. She first asked her brother to contribute some songs to an adaptation of Snow White; the first four songs for Hansel and Gretel were a follow-up, written for Wette’s five children to perform on her husband’s birthday in 1890. Humperdinck called their original Hansel and Gretel songs a “Kinderstuben-Weihfestspiel” (Festival Drama to Consecrate a Nursery), mocking Wagner, who had called Parsifal a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” (Stage-Consecrating Festival Drama). The family so enjoyed their original Hansel and Gretel play, Humperdinck and Wette adapted it, first into a full-length singspiel to be performed by children, then into a through-composed opera for a large orchestra and big adult voices. All of the German musical world became excited about Humperdinck’s creation: in the fall of 1893 Siegfried Wagner conducted a preliminary concert of excerpts in Leipzig, and a month later Richard Strauss, later to become Germany’s most important composer of operas, conducted Hansel and Gretel’s world premiere in Weimar. Strauss praised the work for its “refreshing humor, exquisitely melodic naïveté, orchestral finesse...overall it is original, new, and authentically German.”
Humperdinck’s opera quickly went on to conquer the world. Within a year, it had been performed at 50 different opera houses; within twenty years, it had been translated into 20 different languages. Traditionally it was associated with Christmas, like the ballet world’s Nutcracker; it was the first opera broadcast on the radio, first from London’s Covent Garden, then from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera (on Christmas, 1931). As for Humperdinck, he continued teaching and also wrote a handful of other works for the stage, including operas on Sleeping Beauty and Königskinder, but none had the runaway success of Hansel and Gretel.
“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Wagner!”
Richard Wagner was a tough act to follow. In the mid-nineteenth-century, this great composer—“mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” like many a Romantic—turned the art form of opera on its head, pioneering a new way of thinking, not just about opera, but about all the arts. He was hugely influential. But it wasn’t easy for the young composers and musicians who supported and championed Wagner to break free of his influence and become independent artists in their own right. (In fact, a cult developed at first, dedicated pretty much to preserving der Meister’s works in amber.) Humperdinck, almost a member of Wagner’s extended household, created in Hansel and Gretel a work that could be described as “Wagner-lite”—or, more accurately, Wagner for kids.
Humperdinck used Wagner’s huge orchestra, expanded harmonic language, and system of recurring motifs for his Hansel and Gretel, loosely inspired by the Brothers Grimm. (Earlier, Wagner had incorporated the Grimms’ “Story of the Youth Who Went Forth To Learn Fear” into his opera Siegfried.) Humperdinck’s comic villain, the Witch, bears an uncanny musical resemblance to Mime, the comic villain of Siegfried—the same sugary tunes as she’s grooming her unsuspecting child-victims, the same music of gleeful cackling, and in many productions, the same harsh tenor voice! Also, the religiosity of Wagner’s music for Parsifal, an opera about the rebirth of a dying religion, influenced the mystically Christian music Humperdinck wrote for the fourteen angels who descend Jacob’s Ladder to guard Hänsel and Gretel all night in the dark forest.
But Wagner couldn’t have written Hansel and Gretel himself. Its folk tunes are too catchy, its Dr. Seuss-like rhymes too fun and silly, and the moral at the end is too simple. Humperdinck’s opera is what’s known as a “closed” work; a traditional production leaves the spectator with no unresolved questions, reassures young audiences that good will triumph over evil and that Mom and Dad, up there in the front seat of the car, know where we’re going and will take care of any problems that arise. Wagner’s operas, by contrast, are full of contradictions, complexities, and irony. Children may find them interesting; but Wagner wasn’t writing for children. Humperdinck’s opera, by contrast, is about as G-rated as opera gets.
“Literary Fairy-Stories” vs. the Voice of das Volk
In 1812, the Brothers Grimm first published their collection of Kinder- und Haus-Märchen, traditional stories told at home, wherever German and its dialects were spoken. (Germany was not yet a nation.) Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were linguists, caught up in the Romantic period’s fascination, not with the lives and culture of the rich and famous, but with the wisdom of the common man. To the Romantics, languages, dialects, folk tales, and folk songs expressed the spirit of das Volk, the people—an issue of supreme importance to the thinkers of the time. Unvarnished, raw, puzzling, sometimes appallingly brutal, these stories began to intrigue scholars just when novel ideas such as indoor lighting and universal literacy made this homespun type of oral storytelling obsolete.
Even before the Grimm Brothers began publishing their findings, there was a vogue for short stories and novellas full of magic, humor, and horror among German Romantic writers such as Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann. But credited authors were responsible for these literary fairy-stories, which were intended for printing, not recitation. The Brothers Grimm famously rejected the prettier, gentler literary French version of Cinderella, published in 1697 by Charles Perrault, and included the much nastier traditional version in their collection.
Humperdinck and his sister, in preparing their Hansel and Gretel opera, took some lines verbatim from the Brothers Grimm. But they, too, softened the truly terrifying elements of the story. For instance, in the original, Hänsel and Gretel’s vicious stepmother repeatedly attempts to abandon her husband’s children (and dies at the end). Psychologically, she embodies the same force as the Witch. Humperdinck’s opera, written when realism was becoming the rage in theater, features a much more sympathetic, naturalistic portrait of a destitute Mother whose shame and stress over not being able to feed her children imperils her ability to make good decisions.
Fairy-Stories from Disney to Pelly
Humperdinck’s beloved Hansel and Gretel bestrode the world like a Colossus in the 1930s, when Walt Disney started putting together his first feature-length animated fairy-story, Snow White (1937). Among the many artistic works that influenced that groundbreaking film, this opera demonstrated how to dramatize a Grimm Brothers tale in a way that was beautiful, fun, scary, yet safe for audiences of all ages. And the runaway success of Snow White set up the template for dozens of popular and successful animated features.
Our culture and values have changed considerably since 1937, and every element of these popular entertainments gets scrutinized in terms of current values and mores. Today’s little kids may find 1937’s Snow White and Prince Charming as bizarre and ludicrous as any operetta from that period, while children of the 1930s would undoubtedly be baffled by Frozen.
Hansel and Gretel has evolved, too. Children of the 1930s, living through the Great Depression, might have related easily to the threat of starvation that initiates the story. By 1954, when mechanized agriculture was promising to end world hunger, audiences laughed as Bugs Bunny rescued a gluttonous pair of cartoon German kiddos from Witch Hazel (in “Bewitched Bunny”). Today, our revisionist fairy tales tend to sympathize with the easily maligned witches (à la Wicked or Maleficent) or beef up the horror and sex (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). Coming to Seattle Opera in 2016 is Laurent Pelly’s imaginative production of Hansel and Gretel, first conceived for Glyndebourne Opera in 2008, which playfully addresses contemporary questions of consumerism. Hänsel and Gretel live in a giant cardboard box set against a toxic sky; they get lost in a forest of dead trees and litter, and find themselves trapped in a supermarket, where a checkout girl from hell seduces them with bottles of pop and packets of junk food.