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Operapedia: Hansel and Gretel 

Henry Stewart follows the trail of historical tidbits left by Humperdinck’s holiday classic.

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◀︎ The Basics
A mother sends her starving children to forage in the forest, where they’re captured by a child-eating witch, whom they defeat before happily reuniting with their parents.

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 Time and Place
Wagner invited a twenty-something Humperdinck to Bayreuth to help with the first run of Parsifal, which the young composer relished; his subsequent Hänsel displays bright Wagnerian color, but Humperdinck’s most Wagnerian opera was to come—Königskinder, which had its premiere at the Met in 1910 with diva Geraldine Farrar, who appeared onstage with live geese. “Professor Humperdinck was … taken aback when I first mentioned that I intended having these live geese,” she wrote in her memoir. “When the curtain rose upon that idyllic forest scene … the geese unconcernedly picking their way about … the house was simply delighted and applauded long and vigorously.”

Spoiler Alerts
Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, adapted the libretto from the fairytale transcribed by the Brothers Grimm, who in the nineteenth century set down oral German folklore such as “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”; they basically stole the stories that Disney would later steal for its foundational princess movies. Wette lightened the brothers’ telling, a variation on the “Abandoned Children” archetype, familiar across Europe (including France, as in Charles Perrault’s “Hop-o’-My-Thumb”). The Grimm stories were considerably darker than many remember; in their original version, the children are intentionally abandoned by their food-deprived birth parents—twice!

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◀︎  Something Completely Different
Maurice Sendak designed the sets and costumes for a 1997 production in Houston (available on Blu-ray from a performance in Zurich), stripping the work of its usual candy coating to present something characteristically darker. Sendak later collaborated with Tony Kushner on a picture-book adaptation of the children’s opera Brundibár, which had been performed in a concentration camp; Sendak saw it as a Holocaust-haunted retelling of “Hansel and Gretel.” The book’s images “might remind an adult reader that these children could never have survived the ordeal,” professor U. C. Knoepflmacher writes in an essay. “‘Like Hansel and Gretel,’ Sendak ruefully claimed, ‘in my mind, they died.’”

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Surprise Showstopper
The fantastical and Walkürean intro to Act II, the Hexenritt (Witch’s ride), may be both the most exciting and most frightening piece of music in the opera, especially as employed in producer Michael Myerberg’s 1954 RKO stop-motion film, Hansel and Gretel, as the witch cackles and torments the parents while they comb the woods for their lost children. Blending dialogue with Humperdinck’s score, the movie was picked up by the dying, once-major studio, long a distributor of Disney movies, in an attempt to challenge Disney, which was moving to distribute its own films; this Hansel is now most notably remembered for its millions of dollars in merchandising and tie-ins.

In Pop Culture 
The fairy-tale’s popularity has endured, recently inspiring Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which imagined the siblings as adults in tight leather, bringing down gingerbread-baiters. (It stars Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner, for some reason!) The filmmakers forwent Humperdinck for a score by Hans Zimmer protégé Atli Örvarsson, known for cliché-heavy work on off-brand Dick Wolf shows, such as Law & Order: L.A. and Chicago P.D. The soundtrack CD includes fourteen tracks, including “Lost Children Crying, Vol. 2”—even though there’s no “Vol. 1”!

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◀︎   Hit Tunes
In Act II, the Sandman fills the forest wanderers’ eyes with sand, and they begin to fall asleep—but first sing the evening prayer, a hypnagogic, Rheingold-reminiscent lullaby that extends into the richly orchestrated Traumpantomime, building to Meistersinger-level regality. The evening prayer contains “phrases spread in extending arches, suggesting the divine providence that will protect the children in their adventures,” Amanda Glauert writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera. “[I]ts reassuring triadic shapes purg[e] their minds of all horrors,” while the pantomime’s “symphonic proportions…balance the excesses of the Witch’s Ride and leave…no doubt that good will triumph.”

 First Performances
The opera began as a Singspiel for the extended Humperdinck clan, but the composer soon expanded it into a through-composed drama for professional singers. It had its premiere in Weimar, on December 23, 1893; Richard Strauss conducted. Within a year, the work had spread throughout Germany, to Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg, where Gustav Mahler conducted. The world premiere’s proximity to Christmas helped the opera become a holiday tradition, even though, as Patrick Dillon wrote in opera news last year, “Hänsel has nothing to do with Christmas. With its witch and its sugary confections, it’s a better match for Halloween.” 

 

Reactions 
Richard Strauss didn’t just conduct the world premiere; he adored the work. “Truly, it’s a masterpiece of the highest quality,” he wrote to Humperdinck in October 1893, upon receiving the score, “and I lay at your feet my fullest admiration and my sincerest congratulations on its happy conclusion; it’s the first work that has impressed me for a very long time.” (Strauss’s first opera masterpiece, Salome, was still more than a decade away.) Less enthusiastic was the twentieth-century English pop singer Arnold George Dorsey, who took “Engelbert Humperdinck” as his stage name at the suggestion of his manager—not as a principled tribute to the great composer.

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The  Performance We Wish  We’d Seen
Humperdinck’s opera was the Met’s first Saturday-matinée radio broadcast, on Christmas 1931, as part of a double bill with Pagliacci (which wasn’t broadcast). “Tucked away in the sedate red-&-gold interior of the Metropolitan Opera House last week, hidden in wings and footlights, were half a dozen intruders in those almost sacred precincts—microphones,” Time magazine reported. “To the ‘Met’ they represented a compromise and a new source of income.” The broadcast proved popular, except for the incessant talking by the host, composer Deems Taylor. “Is it possible,” read one post-show telegram, “to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?” 

Where It Is This Season
Through June, thirty-nine productions of Hansel and Gretel have been announced in thirty-eight cities (including at the Wiener Kammeroper, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Volksoper Wien), in myriad languages, including the original German. Around Christmas, it’ll be in Amsterdam, Berlin and more than two dozen other cities throughout Germany.

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