No, Hansel and Gretel is not a children’s opera per se, but it is an opera, and a production, you can take children to. This hypothesis was well tested opening night when the audience was full of members of the under ten set. A very young child sitting near me (maybe 7 years old) was overheard asking her mother if they could stay after the intermission. Adults, too, applauded vigorously at the final curtain.
So what distinguishes this LA Opera production? Is it scary? No, it is a sanitized Grimm’s fairy tale with charm. The dark forest and the children’s night in the woods are populated by Sendak-like characters – creatures resembling large puppets. They wander the stage like things that go bump in the night. Not too scary, though their big glowing eyes are intended to be fearful. Liv Redpath (Gretel) and Sasha Cooke (Hansel) are well cast in the title roles. Redpath, in particular strikes a youthful and lyrical soprano while impishly and energetically tussling with her brother.
The children have been sent into the woods by their mother (Melody Moore) to find something to eat. They are poor and truly hungry. They have spilled the pitcher of milk that was to be for dinner and the cupboards are bare. While these singers do not project actual hunger, given the price of tickets it is doubtful that young audience members have a concept of hunger beyond having had to wait for a late dinner after having toyed with their lunch. Before Hansel and Gretel’s mother has a chance to realize they haven’t returned their father (Craig Colclough) boisterously enters, enthusiastically extolling the virtues of beer. Forgive me, was I the only audience member who could not help but think of Justice Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing? When she finally realizes his good fortune in selling his brooms the two start frantically searching for the children but to no avail.
Well, you know where the story goes from there. Susan Graham’s witch is more camp than frightening. Her bright pink costume and yellow yellow hair are tip offs that even the smallest fry will not be too frightened.
You might take offence at Director Doug Fitch’s light touch to the familiar morality tale, but it is more entertaining than the usual Bavarian treatment and far more likely to cultivate young audiences. Fitch is the rare director who has not only helmed the production, he is credited with the design of costumes and scenery. The libretto is in English; unlike other English language operas the diction is so clear it is rarely necessary to refer to the super titles, another selling point for audiences young and old.
Humperdinck was an assistant to Richard Wagner and a music tutor to his children. Savvy opera goers will notice that it is a /Wagner sized orchestra and the score features leitmotifs that repeat like the master. But the genesis of this opera was a request by the composer’s sister that he write some songs to accompany a play she had written for her child’s birthday party; I would venture to say that the best way to attend would be with a child in tow … a child who is not too hungry.