Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel

Courtney Lewis

I’ve been in New York for the past week, auditioning singers for an opera and conducting at the Juilliard School. The city is gearing up for the holidays, with enticing displays appearing in the grand shop fronts of Fifth Avenue, and a sickly stream of canned musak beginning to percolate every public space.

Thankfully our musical offerings at the Jacksonville Symphony will be rather more diverse, with Holiday Pops in December, our annual performances of The Nutcracker and The Messiah, and a glamorous New Year’s Eve concert conducted by Steven Reineke. I’m also delighted to see opera return to our stage with next weekend’s performances of Humperdinck’s fairy tale masterpiece, Hansel and Gretel.

Engelbert Humperdinck is known today almost exclusively for his opera from 1893. A brilliant student in Munich, he fell under the spell of Richard Wagner, the arch-modernist of the day. Wagner invited Humperdinck to assist him at the first performances of his music drama Parsifal in Bayreuth. Many composers of the time had great difficulty overcoming Wagner’s influence – they would lose their own compositional voice under the seductive power of Wagner’s music. Humperdinck experienced a similar problem, but thankfully his sister’s invitation to write songs to accompany a play based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale saved him.

After writing songs for the play, Humperdinck wrote more music, turning the written text into a Singspiel – a German opera in which much of the action is spoken (think of “The Magic Flute”). From there, it was a short step to completing the through-composed work we know as Hansel and Gretel. By putting the piece together in stages, Humperdinck avoided many of the Wagnerian dead-ends that had bamboozled his contemporaries.

The music has a spellbinding quality that immediately draws the listener into a magical world. The opera follows the story of the fairytale: the children are poor, so their mother sends them off into the forest to pick berries for dinner. They get lost, night falls, and they spend it alone in the forest under the protection of angels and benevolent forest animals. The next morning they stumble upon a gingerbread house. A wicked witch tempts them inside and tries to bake them into gingerbread, but they succeed in baking her instead, thus setting free many gingerbread children who are transformed back into flesh and blood. The opera ends with Hansel and Gretel reunited with their parents.

In Germany and Austria, attending a performance of Hansel and Gretel is a Christmas tradition for all the family. I’m happy to begin that tradition in Jacksonville. The opera is sung in English and staged in Jacoby Hall in a production I first conducted in Minneapolis five years ago. It features a wonderful cast and spectacular twenty-foot high puppets from the In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. These miraculous creations represent the angels who look after the children as they sleep in the forest. With a scary witch who flies around the stage, the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus, fairies and angels, and of course the Jacksonville Symphony, it’s a beautiful production and an enchanting piece. So bring along the whole family, and start a new holiday tradition with us!

 

Reprinted with kind permission of The Florida Times-Union.