Hansel and Gretel is one of the most popular fairy tale operas of all time, but Edward Dick has reinvented it for Opera North, with a brave new production that will make you rethink the classic tale…
Think you know Hansel and Gretel? Think again, because Opera North’s latest production will have you questioning everything you thought you knew. Set in a time when imaginary worlds are created on handheld cameras and fairy tales are adventures into the human psyche, this is a new take on the age-old classic, told through the beautiful music of Engelbert Humperdinck.
This is Hansel and Gretel, but not as you know it
Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go – this is no average production of Hansel and Gretel. It’s a modern reimagining of the fairy tale, coupling Humperdinck’s beautiful score with the latest tech to create a show that’s as stunning visually as it is musically.
It’s full of wit and charm – which is why it’s in English
Humperdinck’s original opera of Hansel and Gretel is sung in German, but this new production will be sung completely in English, with subtitles to boot, so you won’t miss a thing. “It was decided to do it in English – in David Pountney’s wonderful translation – because there’s so much charm and wit in the language of the piece, and it’s easier to communicate that more directly to our audiences in translation,” Dick told us.
It may be an opera, but it’s filled with folk songs
Humperdinck’s score uses folk songs as its starting point, which is incredibly apt, since this is a folk tale after all. But while folk songs may be one of the simplest forms of music, the story he tells with them is clear as a picture, as Justin Doyle, who’ll be conducting some of the shows, told us, “He weaves it all together, with extraordinarily inventive harmony and colourful use of instrumentation (including a cuckoo at one point, as the children become lost in the woods), creates what is really a very ‘filmic’ score.”
It’s not actually set in a fairytale world
On their musical adventure, Hansel and Gretel will journey through a magical forest, meeting the Sandman, the Dew Fairy and a wicked Witch along the way, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were in a fairytale world – but they’re not. Director Edward Dick has placed the siblings in the modern day, the 1990s to be precise, and their adventures take place in a world of their own creation.
You’ll see what Hansel and Gretel see with a live video stream
One of the most exciting things about Opera North’s new production of Hansel and Gretel is the use of video. The siblings create their own imaginary world by using the everyday objects around them, and recording it on handheld video cameras – but they’re not the only ones who can see it, because it appears on screens around the stage, as it happens. The result is impressive, but it’s not easy to pull off, as Video Designer Ian William Galloway explained, “What we’ve got now is a show where it kind of relies on our two leads, who are brilliant, to deliver the show, but also to be their own camera people.”
It’s as relevant today as it was all those years ago, maybe even more so
The opera may have first premiered in 1893, but it’s as relevant today as it was then. Hansel and Gretel are poor. They’re used to being told no, because their mother is always wondering where their next meal will come from – and as much as we’d like to think that doesn’t happen anymore, it does. In fact, 1,109,309 three-day emergency parcels were given out by Trussell Trust food banks between April 2015-16, an increase of 2% on the previous year, so the story is as powerful now as it ever was.
Humperdinck uses music to define his characters
The music isn’t just beautiful, it also has a purpose, because Humperdinck uses it to define and differentiate between his characters with stunning results. He created a memorable, angular melody for the Witch’s spell, which is then played in reverse when Gretel undoes it – and this is contrasted against the simple melodic language of the gingerbread children. As Doyle puts it, “It’s an absolute masterpiece – created from relatively straightforward material, but with immense craft and love.”
It’s taken three years to take it from idea to reality
Planning an opera is no easy task – it takes time, collaboration and a lot of rehearsals. This one has been in the making 2014. But while the creative vision may take years to come to fruition, including a two-day stint filming in Bridlington over the summer, the performers themselves only get 8 weeks to rehearse.
The Witch is not what she seems
The Witch isn’t your usual bad guy. Here, she’s a fantastical version of the mother – and Susan Bullock will be playing both roles in this psychological take on the fairy tale. It’s something that Dick was very keen to explore, “I was interested from the beginning in the idea of doubling the Mother and the Witch, which I think opens up some of the psychological themes at the heart of the fairy tale – the idea that the Witch is a product of the children’s imagination, a fantasy version of the Mother, who at first seems to be everything the Mother is not – generous rather than neglectful, but who in fact turns out to be a cannibal who must be overcome in order for Hansel and Gretel to grow up into adults.”
It’s both terrifying and hilarious
Opera North’s take on the fairy tale has been described as the Blair Witch version of Hansel and Gretel, but while it may be dark, it’s also incredibly funny. Expect to the see the Witch casting spells with her magic whisk and feeding up her victims with a questionable mix of custard, Angel Delight, biscuits and junk food, all thrown in a bowl and mixed together! So while you may be on the edge of your seat at times, you’ll also laugh your head off.
Hansel and Gretel was Humperdinck’s only hit
Humperdinck was the protégé of Richard Wagner, but it was actually Richard Strauss who encouraged him to turn his singspiel (a musical play with dialogue) of Hansel and Gretel into a full blown opera. It premiered in December 1890, with Strauss conducting, and was an instant success. But while Humperdinck’s score captured the hearts of the public, it was his only hit, and for most of his life, he was known as a lecturer and teacher, rather than a composer.
Just like their characters, the performers have to use their imagination
Believe it or not, the singers don’t actually get up on stage until five days before the first performance – and with a production like this, that can be more than a little challenging. “There’s a lot of imagination going on in the rehearsal room, because until you’ve got it on stage and you’ve lit it properly, and you can use it in a controlled environment, you don’t know. It looks good in the rehearsal room, but we’ve still got a long way to go, because obviously everything looks different once you’ve got it on stage.” Galloway explained.
At the heart of it, Hansel and Gretel is about growing up
At the start of the opera, Hansel and Gretel are children, playful and innocent, but by the end, they’ve ventured through the forest on their own, killed the witch and saved the children – they’ve grown up. “Like a lot of fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel is a story that deals with the difficulties of growing up,” Dick told us. “I think Neil Gaiman puts it really well – ‘Fairytales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.'”
You’ll never forget their evening prayer
It’s the most popular piece of music in the opera, and when you hear it, you’ll understand why. It’s certainly won over Doyle, “The serenity of Hansel and Gretel’s Evening Prayer, before they fall asleep in the woods, is stunning. This is the passage most people will recognise, even if they don’t know the piece; and it’s also the music with which Humperdinck opens the opera’s overture, so it is clear he was proud of it too!”
Opera North will perform Hansel and Gretel at Leeds Grand Theatre from Thursday 2nd to Saturday 25th February 2017. With our exclusive offer, you can get some of the best seats in the house with a cocktail and 50% off food at Manahatta – book your tickets now.