Aspen opera shows darker side of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ |

Aspen opera shows darker side of ‘Hansel and Gretel’

Alex IrvinThe Aspen Opera Theater Center's production of "Hansel and Gretel" shows Sunday and Monday, July 27-28, at the Wheeler Opera House, with a live simulcast of Monday's performance being presented for free in Wagner Park.

Even in that brutal realm of the fairy tale, populated by evil stepmothers, dreadful forests and vicious beasts ” and always the threat of children being separated from their parents ” the Germanic-derived story of “Hansel and Gretel” is especially terrifying.

Wretched stepmother? Check. Dark forest? The darkest. Parent-child separation? Yes, the stuff of nightmares. Vicious beast? Here it’s a witch, and her hideousness is multiplied by the fact that she really gets off on her habit of eating children.

Fairy tales are made palatable to children by giving them a fantasy-like setting. We place them in olden times, in places that don’t resemble our own. There are queens and princes and fairies. The animals talk. We remind our young audiences that these are storybooks.

When German composer Engelbert Humperdinck began composing his version of “Hansel and Gretel,” he toned down the horror factor. Most likely, this was traced to the origin of the project; he began writing the music, in 1890, at the request of his sister, who wanted songs to accompany a play she had written for her children. Seeing the potential, Humperdinck expanded the piece into a full-scale opera, along the massive scale of his hero, Wagner. When his “Hansel and Gretel” premiered in 1893, it was musically brilliant, and tame in the chills and thrills.

“The opera’s not as dark as the original story,” said Ed Berkeley, the head of the Aspen Opera Theater Center, and director of undergraduate opera studies at the Juilliard School. “For a while, people have been bringing a darker tone to the piece, a less storybook take.”

In his long career in opera, including 20-plus years in Aspen, Berkeley has never directed a production of “Hansel and Gretel.” Now that the time has come, he is continuing that trend toward increased darkness.

The Aspen Opera Theater Center’s version, conducted by Richard Bado, strips away the distances of time and unfamiliar location. Their “Hansel and Gretel” is set just a couple of years ago, in the all-too-real apocalyptic landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans.

“I wanted something that helped support the darkness of the piece,” said Berkeley, “and to take it a little, if not completely, out of pure fairy tale, out of the storybook. So the poverty of Hansel and Gretel and the family would become a more believable context for the story. So just being able to survive in the world, when hunger is so overwhelming, became the antagonist in the story.”

To review the story: A woman persuades her husband, a woodcutter, to ease their hunger by ditching his two kids in the woods. (In some versions, the woman is the actual mother, but the stepmother role is far more plausible.) The kids cleverly manage to find their way back, but the second time they are not so fortunate. Instead of finding home sweet home, they appear at a gingerbread house, and they begin to feast on the edifice. The old woman/witch entices them inside with promises of more treats, but the trick is on them ” she is only fattening them up to make a meal of them.

Berkeley’s version not only amps up the terror, but makes political points as well. The children and the helpless inhabitants of a nightmare world; the witch can be seen as the government, promising to put things right and failing to deliver. Berkeley acknowledges that “There’s some political context. There’s a little FEMA.” But he says that “Hansel and Gretel,” no matter the setting, is allegorical, and this version doesn’t get heavy-handed in commenting on present-day politics.

“The story itself has enough false promises,” said Berkeley, who has visited New Orleans since the storm hit in August 2005. “The witch offers these false promises ” candy, all the things you’d want in the world.”

The Aspen production, which opened Thursday and has additional dates on Sunday, July 27, and Monday, July 28 at the Wheeler Opera House, heightens the spookiness with the set. “It’s chaos,” said Berkeley. “It’s water lines, flood lines, pieces of things thrown about. Spanish moss. It’s in that world of New Orleans. There’s an abandoned car onstage. That’s a pretty strong image of what happens after a flood: There was something of value, and now it’s destroyed.”

To Berkeley, the witch is at the heart of the gruesomeness of the tale. “What I love about the piece is, you get to the witch, and for someone who eats children, turning the children into gingerbread, she has great joy in what she does,” he said. “That’s very ghoulish, and engaging. She doesn’t hate herself for what she does. She’s not full of guilt. She takes great pleasure in it.” (Berkeley did not mention if this aspect of the fairy tale also mirrored the official response to Katrina.)

Humperdinck’s score to “Hansel and Gretel,” says Berkeley, is “very romantic, very tuneful, all appealing melodies.” He notes the parallels to the Wagnerian idea of opera: “The score itself is huge in terms of scale. The thought behind the orchestration and vocal lines is amazing. It’s amazing to have a children’s story with such complex music and an orchestration that underscores the psychological underpinnings of the story.”

But Humperdinck made sure to give listeners a few chills down the spine. “The music is also very mysterious, some very scary sections,” said Berkeley. “It’s more sophisticated than horror music. But there are places where it’s genuinely scary, when Hansel and Gretel are lost in the woods. There were some kids in dress rehearsal who were genuinely frightened, because they didn’t know what was going to be the next story element.”

Those moments haven’t prevented “Hansel and Gretel” from going down like cake and candy with audiences. Berkeley says he can’t verify the conventional wisdom that it is the most-produced opera in America ever, but he buys it. Following the premiere, which was conducted by no less than Richard Strauss, it instantly entered the popular realm. Within a few decades, it had been translated into over 20 languages (the Aspen production is in English), and became a Christmastime staple. It became, in 1923, the first opera to be broadcast on radio, from London’s Covent Garden; eight years later, it also was the first opera to be broadcast live from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Berkeley believes that this is the first staging of the opera in Aspen and, for such a dark piece of art, it gets something of an idyllic setting. Monday’s performance will be simulcast live to a big screen in the appropriately named Wagner Park. Picnickers and opera lovers are invited to watch the free Opera in the Park, an idea which was launched last summer with a simulcast of Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Berkeley, who has seen the opera audience build thanks to televised performances and, more recently, the Met’s simulcasts to movie theaters, cheers such fan-friendly environments.

“I love it,” he said, noting that an estimated crowd of 1,000 turned out last summer. “I thought last year’s production of ‘Carmen’ was great. I ran back and forth between the park and the balcony, and to sit outside and see something so colorful and still have the Aspen night around you ” I think that’s wonderful.”

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