Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Hansel and Gretel

September 17, 21, 23 (7:30 p.m.) and 25 (2:00 p.m.), 2016

Music by Engelbert Humperdinck
Libretto by Adelheid Wette

Runs approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.  Sung in German with English subtitles.

Some Treats Aren’t So Sweet

This opera, based on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale of a brother and sister, was actually written by a brother and sister. Humperdinck was persuaded to write the music by his sister, Adelheid, who wrote the libretto. The setting for this production has been reimagined as a fantasy carnival world delightfully enhanced by performers from Doug Varone & Dancers with set and costumes by Tony Award nominee David Zinn. Sprinkled with familiar melodies and topped with a happy ending, Hansel and Gretel promises to be a sweet start to the season.

John Keenan, Conductor | Doug Varone, Director

About Hansel and Gretel

Our Cast and Artistic Staff


Megan Marino (Mezzo-Soprano) – Hansel *
American mezzo-soprano, Megan Marino, (Hansel) is a genre-adventurous musician and showman of “impressive clarity”, “warm, plummy tone” and “considerable range and confidence” (Washington Times). Whether on the opera or concert stage, she’s driven by the glory of the art form, a love of obscure forgotten gems and pure undiluted moxie. Her recent appearances include the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Spoleto Festival USA and Caramoor Music Festival.

Rachele Gilmore (Soprano) – Gretel *
Rachele Gilmore (Gretel) is one of America’s most sought after coloratura sopranos, and continues to thrill audiences around the globe. She’s graced the stages of many prestigious opera houses and symphonies including Teatro alla Scala, The Metropolitan Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Boston Lyric Opera, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Victoria Livengood (Mezzo-Soprano) – The Witch & Gertrude, the Mother
Victoria Livengood has been praised as a versatile performer in her performances at opera companies across the country and around the world. She has been called “unquestionably memorable,” and praised for her “striking, rounded portrayal of a comic character.” Having performed at such varied stages at The Metropolitan Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, she most recently performed the role of Acuzena in Il Trovatore with Hawaii Opera Theatre.

Troy Cook (Baritone) – Peter, the Father
American baritone Troy Cook (Peter, the Father) returns to Lyric Opera of Kansas City after his acclaimed performance in the 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro. His voice has been praised as “a beautiful, robust, woolen baritone, the sort that flows effortlessly in its middle range, and gathers energy as it climbs higher, never showing the faintest hint of a blemish.” (The New Criterion) His experience includes significant roles at Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Opera Philadelphia, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and Washington National Opera.

Laurel Weir (Soprano) – Sandman ^ *
American soprano Laurel Weir made her operatic debut in 2012 as the Mother in Malone University’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl in the Night Visitors in her hometown of Canton, Ohio. Since then, she has steadily grown and advanced as a performer and is now the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s newest soprano apprentice. Since her operatic debut, Laurel has portrayed such roles as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito, First Lady in The Magic Flute, Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro and most recently, Mrs. Grose in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at UMKC. She studies with tenor, Vinson Cole and received her Master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

April Martin (Soprano) – Dew Fairy +
American operatic soprano April Martin has been described as bringing a strong characterization to her roles.  She is “ready [to sing] Mozart’s heroines [and her performances are] sweet of phrasing, but full of temperament” (The Plain Dealer). Hailing from North Carolina, during the 15-16 season she performed the 2nd wood sprite in Rusalka and Frasquita in Carmen at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Zerlina inDon Giovanni in a production at the Bar Harbor Music Festival. This season, in addition to Hänsel und Gretel, she will sing Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro, Kitty Hart in Dead Man Walking and Edith in The Pirates of Penzance with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

* Lyric Opera Debut, ^ UMKC Young Artist, + Resident Artist


John Keenan – Conductor
Doug Varone – Director
David Zinn – Set Designer/Costume Designer
Marcus Dilliard – Lighting Designer (Lighting based on original lighting by Robert Wierzel)
Alison M. Hanks – Wig and Make-up Designer
Mark Ferrell – Children’s Chorus Master, Rehearsal Accompanist
Elena Lence Talley – Music Librarian
Deb Morgan – Props Master
Mary Traylor – Costume Coordinator
Karen Billingsley – Wig and Make-up Assistant
Russell Bagwell-Schein – Wig and Make-up Crew
Nate Wheatley – Assistant Lighting Designer
Sarah Zsohar – Figaro Simultext System Operator
Audrey Chait – Stage Manager
Karl Anderson – Assistant Stage Manager
Madeline Levy
– Assistant Stage Manager *
Gen Goering – Head Scenic Artist
Regina Weller – Scenic Artists
Nicki Kearney – Child Coordinator
Olivia West
– Child Coordinator
Mel McClenahan – Head Carpenter
Stephen Cochran – Head Propsman
Chris Tyrone – Head Electrician
James Vinzant – Head Flyman
Phil Rebel – Head Sound Engineer
Jan Toombs – Wardrobe Supervisor
Desiree Baird Story – Desiree Baird Story

* Lyric Opera Debut


Hollis Bartlett
Jake Bone
Alexandra Burley
Whitney Dufrene
Tristan Koepke
Alexander Springer
Hsiao-Jou Tang
Nathalia Trogdon

The 2016/17 season marks the Company’s 30th year. Since its founding in 1986, Doug Varone and Dancers has commanded attention for its expansive vision and versatility. On tour, the Company has performed in more than 100 cities in 45 states across the U.S. and in Europe, Canada, Asia, and South America. Stages include The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, San Francisco Performances, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Toronto’s Harbourfront, Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre, Buenos Aires’ Teatro San Martin, the Venice Biennale, and the Tokyo, Jacob’s Pillow and American Dance Festivals. In opera and theatre, the Company regularly collaborates on the many Varone-directed or choreographed productions produced around the country.


Kaitlyn Borgelt
Megan Boteler
Brenna Bridge
Elizabeth Demers
Erica Michelle Domen
Tristan Feener
Alexandra Freeman
Sarah Hayes
Andrea Hupman
Jibran Khmous
Sufian Khmous
Amari Lewis
Sa’Mya Lewis
Jesenia Marron
Sofia Martinez
Jacquelyn McKay
Sophia Ramos
Alyson Ramsey
Zayne Haley Allean Rice
Margo Roberts
Natasha Roh
Gillian Royster
Margaret K. Samp
Tatum Specht
Grace Wampler


Beau Crowder
Elizabeth Stephens


First Violins
Sunho Kim
Gregory Sandomirsky
Anne-Marie Brown
Anthony DeMarco
Susan Goldenberg
Tomoko Iguchi
Dorris Dai Janssen
Philip Marten
Alex Shum
Lisa Jackson

Second Violins
Tamamo Someya Gibbs
Kristin Velicer
Kathy Haid Berry
Stephanie Cathcart
Mary Garcia Grant
Kazato Inouye
Francesca Manheim
Sarah Kim

Christine Grossman
Duke Lee
Kent Brauninger
Sean Brumble
Philip Kramp
Jenifer Richison

Susie Yang
Maria Crosby
Lawrence Figg
Meredith McCook
Allen Probus

Double Basses
Jeffrey Kail
Brandon Mason
Caleb Quillen
Keith Wymer

Michael Gordon
Shannon Finney
Diane Schick

Diane Schick

Adam De Sorgo
Kenneth Lawrence

English Horn
Kenneth Lawrence

John Klinghammer
Junghwan Lee
Jane Carl

E-Flat Clarinet
John Klinghammer

Bass Clarinet
Junghwan Lee

Ann Bilderback
Thomas DeWitt

Thomas DeWitt

David Sullivan
Elizabeth Gray
David Gamble
Stephen Multer

Julian Kaplan
Brian Rood

Roger Oyster
Porter Wyatt Henderson
Adam Rainey

Bass Trombone
Adam Rainey

Steven Seward

Timothy Jepson

Christopher McLaurin
Joseph Petrasek
Matthew Henderson

Deborah Wells Clark

A Brief Synopsis


In their run-down tenement, Hansel and Gretel endure their daily chores. Both are starving, and Gretel chides Hansel for his complaining. Putting the work aside, they begin to dance, but their mother, Gertrude, enters and scolds them for their dalliance. A jug of milk is broken, and she is infuriated with her naughty children, sending them out of the house in search of food. Gertrude is overwhelmed by the family’s current economic condition. The unemployed father, Peter, enters happily with unexpected provisions. He is shocked to discover that the children are headed toward the carnival, a dangerous place full of mischief and intrigue.


As they wander idly, Hansel praises himself for finding nourishment. Absentmindedly, both children eat everything and then realize how this will anger their mother. A mysterious darkening mist envelops the children. The Sandman appears and prepares them for sleep. As they become drowsy, they say their evening prayers.


When morning breaks, the Dew Fairy awakens Hansel and Gretel. They both discover they have had the same dream. The two children find themselves in front of the carnival, replete with sweets and an eerie carousel of inanimate children. They begin to nibble on the sugary treats. The carousel is really a trap, revealing the home of the witch. She offers her friendship, but both children are suspicious. The witch casts a spell to immobilize them.

The evil sorceress stokes the stove’s fire, intending to cook both children. Gretel manages to break the spell, and she and Hansel shove the witch into the oven, slamming the door shut. A curse is lifted, and other children resume human form. Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their parents, while the dead witch is dragged out of the oven.

Courtesy Minnesota Opera

A Fairy-tale Opera For Adults (and Children)

While Hansel and Gretel is referred to as a “fairy-tale opera” and is generally produced in a manner that makes it family-friendly, this does not mean that it is a children’s opera. There is, of course, a large repertoire of children’s operas, works that are directed specifically at young audiences and in some cases are scored to be accessible to young voices as well. (Kansas City native Susan Kander has specialized in this field). While these works are in an invaluable tool in exposing young audiences to opera, they rarely if ever receive main stage performances, but are rather performed on second stages or in community outreach programs.

Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, however, does not fall into that category. It is a repertoire staple with casts that include singers of the same caliber as those who appear in more adult fare. Though the plot may appeal to children, and the melodies are tuneful and accessible, the orchestrations are sufficiently elaborate to appeal to the most sophisticated operagoers.

While Humperdinck’s musical treatment of the story was originally intended for children, by the time it reached operatic proportions it had a far more serious purpose. During the nineteenth century, with the advent of the Romantic movement, there was a growing interest in folk traditions. In Germany, in particular, the search for such traditions was motivated by a desire to find a common culture among the various German-speaking communities, who were not yet a political entity. (This sincere effort should not be judged by the distorted use to which this nationalism was put in future generations). In the early 1800’s the Grimm brothers published their masterpiece, a collection of folk tales they had collected during their travels throughout Europe. About the same time that Humperdinck was writing Hansel and Gretel, Francis James Child was researching British and Scottish ballads, publishing them in a collection henceforth referred to as the Child Ballads.  Humperdinck’s opera was part of this tradition. In fact a number of Märchenoper (fairy-tale operas) were composed at that time. Yet only, Hansel and Gretel has endured.

Hansel and Gretel, of course, is not the only popular opera based on a fairy tale. The other best-known such opera is Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Massenet’s Cendrillon, is performed far less often). What makes Hansel and Gretel especially appealing to children, in contrast with the Rossini opera, is that it represents the Germanic preference for direct story-telling over the more elaborate vocal pyrotechnics of the Italian style, so valued by opera buffs but perhaps less so for people first being introduced to opera.

While fairy tales are directed a children, many scholars have taken them very seriously, as they provide a window into the hopes and fears of children. Behind this apparently simple story of Hansel and Gretel we see the apprehension about abandonment, fear of strangers, unfamiliar places, and hunger that children may experience. The reason that children accept  these stories  is their understanding of the genre, that when a story begins “once upon a time” they know that a happy ending will ensue – along with children’s delight in hearing the same story over and over, in which case they already are sure of the ending before the telling begins.

Thus fairy tales are serious subjects indeed, and when we say that this opera brings out the child in all of us, that may not be such a comforting thought.

– Written by Stu Lewis

Detailed Plot Outline

Note: the current Lyric Opera production is set in an impoverished urban area in the early 20th century and the forest is represented by a beautiful yet strange carnival/circus.

Place: Traditionally, Germany – a small house and the adjacent forest

Time: Once upon a time


The overture, which is frequently performed independently as a concert piece, is built on melodies from the opera itself, but unlike the overtures of many of the classic Broadway shows, it is not just a collection of tunes but rather a coherent telling of the story which is about to follow. It begins with the Hymn, a melody which serves as a unifying motif for the opera as a whole (at least part of this melody appears in each of the three acts). We then hear some music associated with the children at play, interspersed with some melodies associated with the witch. Finally, order is restored with the restatement of the Hymn.

Act I: The family’s home

The curtain opens on Hansel and Gretel at home, doing their chores. Gretel is singing a folk-style song about geese who cannot afford shoes, and in the second verse Hansel retorts by singing more directly about the family’s poverty and his own hunger. Each of the children interrupts the other one word short of the verse’s end. The song completed, the children speak more openly of their hunger, but Gretel reminds Hansel (taking a line from the Hymn) that when things are at their worst God will hear their prayer. The two try to cheer each other with a light-hearted song.

Gretel tell Hansel that she has discovered that a generous neighbor, concerned with the children’s weight loss, had brought over a jug of milk. The children eagerly await the mother’s return home, imagining what she will make with the thick cream on the surface. To pass the time, Gretel offers to teach Hansel to dance, but Hansel finds that he is too clumsy. The dance sequence consists of another charming duet.

Their fun is interrupted by the return home of the mother, who is angry that they are playing instead of working. She threatens to beat them, but in her uncontrolled anger she instead knocks over the jug of milk. Realizing that the family now has nothing to eat, she sends the children into the forest to look for berries.

Offstage, we hear Peter, the children’s father, singing a happy tune (starting in a minor but soon modulating to major key) as he is returning from a day in town, apparently somewhat inebriated. He soon reveals the real reason for his good mood. The townspeople have been preparing for a festival, and in their rush to clean their houses they have bought all the brooms Peter had to sell. He shows her the basket of food he has purchased with the proceeds of his sales. After he and Gertrude have a brief celebration, he asks about the whereabouts of the children. Gertrude tells him where she has sent them, and Peter reacts with shock, telling in ominous heavily accented phrases of the witch who patrols the forest looking for children to eat. The two rush off to look for the children as the curtain falls.

Act II: The forest, nightfall

The second act begins with a fiery orchestral interlude, referred to as “The Witches’ Ride.” The children are alone in the forest. As in Act I, the first voice we hear is that of Gretel, singing a children’s song, this time about a dwarf. Hansel interrupts her to tell her that his basket is nearly full. From offstage, they hear to voice of a cuckoo, and the children respond in kind. During their playful interchange, they sample the berries, until they suddenly realize that the basket is now empty.  Gretel panics when she realizes that night has fallen and they are lost in the woods. Offstage voices of various forest creatures (in some productions personified by animals) are heard. Calm is restored by the appearance of the Sandman, fulfilling his traditional role of helping the children fall asleep and blessing them with pleasant dreams. His aria (voiced by a soprano) is so understated that it might be easy to overlook its exquisite beauty. Before lying down to sleep, the children sing their nighttime prayer, the only full version of the aforementioned “Hymn,” one of the most celebrated duets for two female voices in the repertoire, expressing that as they sleep fourteen angels will be watching over them. As they drift off to sleep, the stage is suddenly illuminated with a bright light, shining on a stairway which has mysteriously appeared. As we hear an extended orchestral interlude, fourteen angels descend the staircase and form a circle around the children. The stage is filled with intense light, as the curtain falls on the peaceful tableau. Given the religious theme of the music, this passage appears clearly to be a Biblical allusion to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28.

ACT III: Dawn, same location

The children are asleep. An instrumental passage opens the final act. Although it sounds innocent, the opening melody is based on the first phrase we will hear from the witch. The Dew Fairy appears and sings a light aria as she awakens the children. The children awake and are surprised to learn that they have both had the same dream, about fourteen guardian angels. As the morning mist lifts, the witch’s house, temptingly constructed of sweets, comes into view.

Believing that the angels have led them to this place, they decide to take a bite out of the house. From the house, they hear a voice asking “Nibble nibble mousey, who’s nibbling at my housey” (common English translation), to the melody which opened the prelude to the act. Hansel and Gretel try to reassure themselves that they have heard only the sound of the wind. They continue eating, until they hear the witch singing the same phrase. The witch emerges from the house and lassoes Hansel. She politely invites them inside, ominously telling them how much she loves children. Realizing that they may be in trouble, the children try to run away, but they are detained when the witch places a magic spell on them. In the longest single aria in the opera, the witch makes her true intentions known, while chanting a number of magical spells. Hansel is imprisoned in a cage, and Gretel is forced to help fatten him up. At one point the witch checks to see if he is plump enough. She asks to feel his hand, but Hansel sticks a bone out of the cage in order to deceive her. Gretel unsuccessfully tries to use a spell of her own to reverse the witch’s spell, but it does not work.

Deciding to devour Gretel in the meantime, the witch asks her to check the fire in the oven to see if it is hot enough. She has not noticed that Hansel, with Gretel’s assistance, has escaped from the cage.  Feigning ignorance, Gretel asks the witch to show her how to do it, and when the witch sticks her own head into the oven, the children shove her all the way in and shut the door. As the two celebrate their freedom, dancing to a waltz-like version of the “little mousey” theme, the oven explodes.

Suddenly, they hear the voices of a group of children who had been turned into gingerbread by the witch but are now freed from their spell by the witch’s death. They are blind, but they inform Hansel and Gretel that a touch from them will restore their eyesight, which they do one child at a time. Hansel recites the witch’s spell, and they regain their mobility as well. The children join in a joyous chorus and dance, Hansel and Gretel remember that the angels had promised to protect them.

Peter is heard, singing his familiar “tra-la-la-la,” and he and Gertrude enter, overjoyed at finding their children alive and well. Quoting from the “Hymn” motif, he reminds them that when things look bad, God will hear their prayers. All join in a repetition of the Hymn theme as the curtain falls.

– Written by Stu Lewis

About Engelbert Humperdinck

While most people today consider Engelbert Humperdinck to be a one-hit wonder, he was actually a highly respected composer in his time, with eight operas to his credit (but don’t hold your breath waiting for the Lyric to perform any of the other seven). He was born September 1, 1854 in Siegburg, Germany. Like virtually all other major composers, he was a child prodigy, composing his first work – a  piano duet – at the age of 7 and a Singspiel (stage work with music and spoken dialogue, as in The Magic Flute) at the age of 13. His parents were skeptical, however, of his ability to make a career for himself in music, and they insisted that he study architecture, though when he reached 18 the director of the Cologne Conservatory persuaded them to let the young man follow his dreams. After four years in Cologne, he moved to Munich for more advanced studies. It was there that he first was exposed to the music of Wagner, with whom he eventually established a personal friendship.

For a number of years thereafter he traveled widely throughout Europe and North Africa, absorbing the folk cultures of these various places that would later be expressed in his music. In 1885 he met Richard Strauss, and the two men developed a long-term friendship and professional relationship. (Wagner had died two years earlier). A few years after that, he served as tutor to Wagner’s son Siegfried for a year. He subsequently became friends with Hugo Wolf, whose career he supported enthusiastically. Throughout this time, he wrote a number of pieces, including some incidental work for dramas, as well as a number of songs.

The opera which was to bring him lasting fame, Hansel and Gretel, went through a long gestation period. In 1890 his sister, Adelheid Wette, asked him to compose music to the lyrics she had written for four songs, to be used in a puppet show her daughters were working on. This was then expanded into a Singspiel with piano accompaniment, again to a libretto written by Adelheid. Pleased with the result, he subsequently provided complete orchestration and turned it into an opera, which had its premiere December 23, 1893, with Richard Strauss conducting. Upon receiving the score, Strauss, who had not yet written he ground-breaking operas which were to make him perhaps the greatest German composer since Wagner, wrote to Humperdinck, “Truly it’s a masterpiece of the highest order….it’s the first work that has impressed me for a very long time.” (One might even speculate that the children’s second-act duet might have been the inspiration for Strauss’s “Presentation of the Rose” in Der Rosenkavelier. In fact, much of the musical style in Hansel and Gretel seems to look forward to Strauss more than it looks backward to Wagner).  The opera, which was seen as a harbinger of Germanic culture, was an immediate success, and its fame was spread by a touring company that introduced the music throughout Europe. During the time he was composing the final draft, he found the time to marry Hedwig Taxer.

While Hansel and Gretel is the one work for which Humperdinck is best known, his next major work, Königskinder, was regarded as his most innovative. Originally conceived as a melodrama, a work for orchestra and spoken word (not to be confused with the American theatrical form with the same name), it premiered in 1897 and later was revised into a full opera, which premiered in 1910 in New York to enthusiastic responses from the public and critics alike. His original approach to narration was to set the text to spoken words but to also notate the exact inflections, pitch, and accentuation that the actors were to use. This was the forerunner of a form of expression called Sprechgesang, the best-known example of which is probably Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21. William Walton’s Façade may be the best-known English language example.  A parody of the form can be found in the rustics’ play in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Carlisle Floyd used a form of Sprechgesang in his opera Cold Sassy Tree, performed some years ago at the Lyric Opera. Humperdincks’s theory was that the combination of words and music in this form would replicate the drama of the ancient Greeks.

In the years that followed, Humperdinck wrote a number of operas and various vocal works, none of which matched the fame of his earlier operas. He also wrote incidental music for several plays, leading one modern critic to speculate that had he lived a few decades later he might well have become a film composer, as did a number of major European composers such as Erich Korngold.

In 1912, he suffered a stroke form which he never fully recovered, though he kept on writing for a number of years, despite deteriorating health. In September 1921, he had a heart attack while attending his son’s first foray as an opera director, and he died a few days later.

In succeeding years, Hansel and Gretel established a firm place in the repertoire, not as a children’s opera but as a major work in its own right. Both London’s Royal Opera House and the New York Metropolitan Opera chose if for their first opera broadcasts. The name Humperdinck, because it strikes people as humorous, has been used as the name of an asteroid belt and part of Donald Duck’s family tree, Humperdinck Duck. In the early 1960’s pop singer Arnold George Dorsey, at the suggestion of his manager, adopted the name Engelbert Humperdinck, which he has used throughout his long career, including a recent performance at the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts.

– Written by Stu Lewis

The Saga of Hansel and Gretel

The saga of Hansel and Gretel has a long history. Since the Grimm brothers’ anthology is generally considered the authoritative source for fairy tales, we will begin with their version, although scholars now acknowledge that the brothers frequently revised the tales to fit their own taste. At least three examples of such editing can be found in the Hansel and Gretel story: (1) Their anthology actually uses different names for the characters, assigning the names “Hansel” and “Gretel” to an entirely different story; (2) in their original version, the mother is the natural mother of the two children, as in the opera; in a later edition, she becomes the stepmother (thereby creating a stereotype which is particularly harmful to children today given the proliferation of blended families); and (3) the addition of a religious element (prominent in the opera) which fit the ideology of their time, although the basic legend may well have pre-Christian roots.

As the Grimm brothers tell it, “At the edge of a great forest there once lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children” (in the opera, he is a broom salesman); when he spoke to his wife about his despair about being able to provide food for his family, the wife suggested that they should take the children into the forest and abandon them there (certainly not the version we learned as children). Hansel, overhearing them, went out to gather some white pebbles. As the family headed for the forest, he dropped the pebbles at regular intervals, thus enabling him and his sister to find their way home. Sometime later, he overheard his parents planning the same thing. This time he was locked in his house, so he substituted bread crumbs for pebbles (note the repetition, so common in folktales, but usually in threes). However, since birds ate the crumbs, he was unable to find the way home. Three days later (a magic number) they encountered a bird who led them to a house made of cake. (Unlike most animal helpers, the bird nearly leads them to disaster). As in the opera, they hear a voice saying “Nibble nibble mouse, who’s nibbling at my house.” The occupant of the house, an old woman (not originally referred to as a witch) invites the children in to her house, concealing her plan to eat them. The death of the witch and the escape of the children follows the version that most of us know. After pillaging the residence for jewelry, the two go walking in search of their home and encounter a large lake. A swan ferries them across and they find their way home, much to the delight of their father (the mother/stepmother having died) and given the value of the stolen items, the family’s poverty was over, and they lived happily after.

It is no wonder that we don’t tell the story this way to children today, as is the case with many of the Grimm tales. The word “Disneyfied” has sometimes been used to describe the watering down of these tales, though the Disney studio was not the first revisionist to present the tales in this way. If fact, Disney relied heavily on the versions of the French writer Perrault, whose versions were much sunnier than those of the apparently more authentic Grimm brothers.

Some scholars believe that the original tale dates back to the Great Famine of the early 1500’s, when some people were actually desperate enough to abandon their children, or worse. The story is one example of a form of fairy-tale referred to as “the children and the ogre” in which children in danger manage to outwit the adults or monsters who threaten their existence. In the words of folklore scholar Max Luthi, “All these stories reflect the threat to the child of mysterious forces, as well as the child’s ability to master these forces.” A French tale published in 1698, Finette Cendron, contains many elements of the Hansel and Gretel story, including capture by a malevolent creature (here, a giant) in a house made of precious stones, and the incineration of the oppressor in an oven. Other elements of the story appear in various versions of the tale.

Perhaps this is the best place to clarify the distinction between the fairy tale and its close cousin, mythology. The latter is concerned with events of national or even cosmic significance; often the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, as in the Aeneid, The Iliad, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or Star Wars. Fairy tales, on the other hand, are personal, even when dealing with princes and princesses. “The Little Mermaid” – Rusalka in its operatic incarnation – is concerned with the fate of a young woman who wants to marry a prince, not with the fate of the kingdom she will help rule. “Hansel and Gretel” is primarily about the fate of a single family, though a handful of other children factor in the conclusion.

One thing that fairy tales and myths have in common is that both deal with generalized characters. The terms “beautiful princess,” “handsome prince,” or “wicked old witch” do not require detailed descriptions. Moreover, characters are either good or bad; there are no nuances. We don’t care if the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” had a difficult childhood which made her the person she has become, nor do we seek her rehabilitation. As Luthi puts it, “The witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is not a person but a mere figure, a personification of evil.”

In our own, supposedly more sophisticated time, fairy tales still have power over us, even when we seem to mock them, as did Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer in their classic musical Once Upon a Mattress. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine may seem to be mocking them as well in Into the Woods, but that show (one of many dramas where Sondheim gets very close to opera) is rather a serious attempt to explore the deep psychological meaning of the tales, closer to Grimm than to Disney.

I will close with another quote from Max Luthi, whose book Once Upon a Time is highly recommended for anyone wishing to delve more deeply into the subject: “The fairy tale portrays, in a wider sense than is generally realized, a harmonious world. The confidence from which it flows is transmitted to both those who tell it and those who hear it. Thus it no wonder that not only children come under its spell. It gives not only power, it gives form and inspiration….Every fairy tale is, in its own way, something of a dragon slayer.”

– Written by Stu Lewis

References Materials

Fisher, Burton. Hansel and Gretel. Opera Journeys Mini Guide Series.

Hall, George. Notes accompanying the Chandos CD. 2007.

Kravitt, Edward. “The Joining of Words and Music in Late Romantic Melodrama.” Music Quarterly 62 (October 1976) 571-590.

Luthi, Max. Once Upon a Time. Translated: Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1976.

“Operapedia: Hansel and Gretel.” Opera News (Dec 2015) 14-15.

Oxford Music On-line.

Opie, Iona and Peter. The Classic Fairy Tales. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 2002.


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