Boulder Opera Presents “Hansel & Gretel” on Family Series

Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.

Boulder Opera’s 2014 production of Hansel & Gretel, with Lindsay French (Gretel), Corinne Denny (the Witch) and Genevieve Baglio (Hansel).

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel has been a beloved Christmas-time opera for more than a century. Based on the Brothers Grimm classic fairytale, the opera tells an uplifting story of overcoming hardships and the importance of family.

This December, Boulder Opera will present an abridged, hour-long production of Hansel and Gretel, sung in English. The singers will be accompanied by pianist Aric Vihmeister and cellist Mathieu D’Ordine.

The performance will be followed by a Q&A session, hosted by director Brandon Tyler Padgett. As a part of their Family Series, Boulder Opera aims to make this interactive, shorter performance more accessible and engaging for younger audiences.

“We want to give young children access to classical music as a stepping stone to engage with this craft,” says Padgett, who will also be playing the role of Hansel and Gretel’s father.

“We want to develop the next generation of opera lovers,” Dianela Acosta, the executive artistic director of Boulder Opera, says. “The best way to do this is to start at an early age, so [attending operas] becomes a habit.”

To be more family-friendly, the production will highlight the light-hearted, magical aspects of Humperdinck’s fairytale opera, while deemphasizing the darker, more mature themes of poverty and domestic abuse. 

“Our focus is on the overarching positive themes within the story—the familial bond of Hansel and Gretel and the natural elements in the world that have benevolent or caring features and want good people to prosper,” Padgett says. “We want to (bring out) the aspects of hope and good over evil.”

Padgett’s goals for Boulder Opera’s production align with the original purpose of the opera, as a small-scale holiday show for children. In 1889, the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette commissioned him to write a few songs for her children’s show, based loosely on the Brothers Grimm fairytale. Following the public’s enthusiastic response, Humperdinck and Wette decided to expand the show into a full two-hour-long opera, which premiered in Weimar in 1893 under the baton of Richard Strauss. 

To appeal to children, Wette decided on a more optimistic adaptation of the Grimm fairytale for her libretto, incorporating additional elements of German folklore. For example, in the forest, Hansel (portrayed here by Leslie Ratner) and Gretel (Melaina Mills) meet the gentle Sandman (Sabino Balsamo), a mythical character in European folklore who sends children to sleep by placing a grain of sand into their eyes and creates beautiful dreams.

After they fall asleep, Hansel and Gretel dream of being protected by 14 angels, which will be portrayed by a teen chorus from the Denver-Boulder area in flowing white costumes. The next morning, the sparkling, elegant Dew Fairy (Balsamo) appears, sprinkling magical dew to awaken the siblings from their peaceful slumber.

With these fantastical elements, Padgett aims to bring out the childlike wonder of Hansel and Gretel as they embark on their adventure, a feeling he hopes will draw the audience into their magical world. 

“Hansel and Gretel are always wondering,” Padgett says. “They’re always asking questions. They’re not only hungry for food but they’re also hungry for knowledge and for excitement. They want to be enchanted.”

Despite the fairytale elements, the opera does explore the darker themes of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, although in a less disturbing way. In the original fairytale, due to the shortage of food and the family’s poverty, the children’s stepmother persuades their father to leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods to die, so the couple don’t starve to death. Later, after being abandoned in the woods by their parents, the siblings, hungry and afraid, wander into the bloodthirsty witch’s magical gingerbread house.

In Humperdinck’s opera, the mother (Lauren Bumgarner) is presented as a more likable, yet complicated character. Filled with despair and frustration as her family starves, the mother sends Hansel and Gretel to the haunted forest to pick strawberries. Realizing her mistake, the mother and father later set off into the forest to save their children.

“One of the themes that children tend to have trouble with in this opera is that the parents have fault in this story,” Padgett says. “It’s not because they’re bad people — they are just humans in a desperate situation. So we try to show how desperate their situation is.”

After the performance, Padgett says this issue will be addressed further in the interactive Q&A session, which will offer children an opportunity to engage with the storyline and the music.

“We want to be able to start a dialogue with kids—not only about the beauty of classical music but also how it reflects real life and its problems,” Padgett says. “This can be a real starting place for a lot of human empathy.”

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