Many adults and children fondly remember their first exposure to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “Hansel And Gretel”. I vaguely remember a puppet show presentation of the story. Because the players were hand puppets, the story was less frightening.
A few years later, our sixth grade class watched a black and white movie of a stage presentation of the operatic version of the story. The film was shown to the entire school as a special treat before the holiday break. It was then, that I thought the tale seemed a bit creepy.
When I reached young adulthood, I became roommates with Robert, a fanatical opera buff. One Christmas Eve he brought out his audio version of Hansel und Gretel on LP records. He explained that his version was in German, just like the premiere of Englebert Humperdink’s work in the Hoftheater on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany.
I gladly listened with Robert because I have a soft spot for morality tales aimed at children that are also sophisticated enough for adults. I also liked the odd twist about Engelbert Humperdinck because his name was the same as that of the contemporary British popular singer, famous for his schmaltzy hit records. Meanwhile, the German composer had a more enduring and endearing legacy.
The Hansel and Gretel Opera is certainly a product of collaboration. The fairy tale was a joint effort by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It was first published in 1812. The idea for an opera came from Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid, who also wrote the German language libretto. Humperdinck, composed and arranged the music. The original 1893 premiere was performed in the city of Weimar and conducted by Richard Strauss.
The standard English translation of the libretto was written by Constance Bache. The frequently performed American version was translated for the Metropolitan Opera by Norman Kelley.
Act 1 of the opera sanitizes the dysfunctional, poverty plagued family’s scenario of the original story. The evil stepmother of the original story is now a stressed-out mom, trying to provide sustenance for the family. The henpecked woodcutter father of the original, is a drunken broommaker in the opera.
The original story has the evil stepmother convincing her husband to abandon their children, Hansel and Gretel, in the middle of the forest. With two fewer mouths to feed, the couple will be better able to survive. The children overhear the parents’ conversation. Hansel sneaks outside to gather stones to drop so the siblings can find their way back home.
The opera version has the stressed-out kindly mom sending the kids into the forest to collect wild strawberries. Dad returns with good news about the sale of his brooms and he’s loaded down with goodies to eat. He asks about the children’s whereabouts, then is horrified to learn that the kids are in the forest that is haunted by an evil witch who lures children to her gingerbread house in order to eat them.
The rest of the opera is likewise made more family friendly by leaving out the parents’ abandonment; the children’s stealthy return home by following the trail of dropped stones; the stepmother’s second attempt at abandoning the kids; the failure of the kids to return home; and the horrors of being lost in the haunted forest.
The opera presents the lost children playfully gathering and neglectfully eating wild strawberries. When they realize dusk has fallen, the siblings become lost. They’re lulled into drowsiness and angels protect them in their sleep.
The next day, the children awaken. In both versions, Hansel and Gretel discover the gingerbread house, eat parts of it, and are captured by the cannibalistic old witch. After the children are taken, both story versions let us know the witch is plotting to kill the kids and eat them.
(Spoiler alert). Eventually, either Gretel or in the opera, both siblings, trick the witch and push her into the oven to die. The original tale says the children then loot the witch’s residence and run away with pockets full of precious stones and pearls. Kiddos make it home to a joyful reunion with dad. Meantime, the evil stepmom has somehow, died. The poor family enjoys their new-found wealth and lives happily ever after.
In the opera, after the witch is in the oven. The oven blows up and the gingerbread men forming the perimeter fence are transformed back into children. The explosion alerts the parents. There’s a happy reunion of mom, dad, Hansel and Gretel. Everybody is repentful and thankful to be together again. The curtain falls and the foursome live happily ever after.
Hansel and Gretel remains as one of the most beloved and frequently performed operas. The presentation is usually performed during the holiday season.