When I think of Hansel and Gretel, I think of the original fairy tale about two young children getting lost in the woods and finding a house made of candy, only to find an evil witch, have a spell cast on them, and eventually trick her into being pushed into her own oven. When I decided to go to The College of Idaho’s version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Opera, Hansel and Gretel, directed by Jordan Bowman, I was hoping for those same emotions of childlike entertainment and joy— I was given the desired feeling, in just over an hour.
The Hansel and Gretel opera—based on the original famous fairytale by the Brothers Grimm—was first performed in 1893 and has become somewhat of a tradition in opera houses around the world. Its structure, per the notes I was handed upon entry, is in one of theme and motif, which was unique in comparison to the typical composure style of the time. Although I’m not particularly familiar with operatic composition and was not sure when I entered what one structured of “themes and motifs” would look like in comparison to one that wasn’t, I understood what they meant as soon as the introductory music started. Although it took me a while to pick up on, there were sections of the music throughout the opera that seemed to repeat as characters came in again, and themes in the music were repeated at both the beginning and end of the opera. It was subtle enough that it fit together well, but stood out enough that, if you were listening for it, the untrained ear could pick up on the themes.
While the original Hansel and Gretel opera was created to be three acts, The College of Idaho’s version was shortened and restructured to two acts, making it just over an hour long. I think one of my favorite casting and stylistic choices was the decision to cast the same person as Gertrude, Hansel and Gretel’s mother, and the witch. Humperdinck’s original intention with the two roles was to demonstrate contrasting parts of the same person, and the C of I production took this even further by having the same person, Megan Croft, sing both roles. I thought this was an excellent choice— something I wouldn’t have realized I was missing had it not been there, but simultaneously important to my viewing experience.
Perhaps the most stunning part of Hansel and Gretel was the singing itself. Operatic singing is an art form, and I could tell that all the singers must have practiced a lot. The singers worked together marvelously, and the music itself was well developed and matched the mood of the scene, ranging from happy, bouncy music in the beginning to songs filled with terror or anger. Often, the songs transitioned one into the other so well it was barely noticeable that there was a change until it had fully transitioned to the next. In a similar fashion, the lighting shifted from peaceful blues and greens to joyful yellows to bright, angry, hot reds.
I don’t have much experience with operas, but Hansel and Gretel was a great introduction to the art form, and gave me something else to look out for from the C of I music department.
- Shannon Heller, C of I student reporter