Complete with pyrotechnics, dancing sprites, a gingerbread house and more, IU Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” opened Nov. 2 at the Musical Arts Center.
The opera is adapted from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale of the same name.
The opera opens with Hansel and Gretel in the yard of their impoverished farm. While playing, Hansel breaks the milk jar his mother Gertrude told him not to touch. When Gertrude returns and discovers the broken jar, she angrily sends Hansel and Gretel out into the woods to look for strawberries.
Peter, her husband, then returns in a jolly mood after a day of successfully selling broomsticks. When Gertrude tells him what she’s done, Peter warns her a wicked witch lives in the forest where Hansel and Gretel went off to. Hurriedly they search for them.
“I feel like she hasn’t tasted kids in a long time,” Darian Clonts, a doctoral student who plays the Gingerbread Witch, said. “She’s so overly excited to get the kids that her judgement is clouded a lot of the time.”
Director Michael Shell said Hansel and Gretel’s journey through the woods is a metaphor.
“As a journey through the woods, they encounter wonderful things, but they also encounter somethings that are not so wonderful, just like life,” Shell said.
Shell said that the concept of the Gingerbread Witch also carries a morale.
“Some things that are sweet should not be eaten,” said Shell. “I think that’s sort of the idea of all this, that looking beyond maybe appearances at first and get to know someone before you trust them.”
Hansel and Gretel, like any opera, is a collaboration between the stage director, Shell, and the conductor, Arthur Fagen.
Shell said Fagen, given his experience in opera, particularly his knowledge of “Hansel and Gretel,” was very helpful in understanding the orchestration.
“We’re very fortunate in that, one, he’s a very sensitive conductor, and, two, he wants the whole piece to speak theatrically,” Shell said.
He said Fagen helps him navigate the Humperdink’s score, which is one of the loudest in all of opera and can potentially overwhelm the singer’s voices. Shell said finding singers who are loud enough yet still look like children can be challenging.
Other aspects of the opera production involved a children’s choir, a ballet in the woods, pyrotechnics for the witch and an elaborate set.
To make it more accessible for children, Humperdinck’s opera, usually presented in German, was performed in English with subtitles for people to follow.
“One of the things that keeps people from opera sometimes is this language barrier,” Shell said. “What’s nice about this is that it does make it immediate for kids, so even they may be reading sometimes, they can also clearly hear a lot of it."
Shell said another highlight is the craftsmanship of the set, in which the grass on the ground is complete with Peter and Gertrude’s house, the Gingerbread house and more.
“They don’t really make sets like this anymore,” Shell said.
Hayley Lipke, a performer’s diploma candidate who plays Gertrud, said “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t always performed for kids.
This past summer, Kipke performed Gertrud in a production of “Hansel and Gretel” with the Berlin Opera Academy in Germany. That production was darker and featured themes of child abuse and sexual abuse.
But Clonts said “Hansel and Gretel” is a perfect introduction to opera for kids and new patrons.
“It’s a story that we recognize and it’s in English, which helps,” said Clonts. “If you have a seven-year-old, then you should bring them to this opera. Opera isn’t just for old people, like me, it’s for young people as well."
”Hansel and Gretel” runs at the Musical Arts Center through November 4, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. The production will move to the Clowes Memorial Auditorium in Indianapolis for performances Nov. 16 and 17.