It’s not every day that a favorite childhood story is brought to life with a full orchestra, soaring arias, sumptuous costumes, and even a giant gingerbread house. Yet Harvard College Opera’s production of “Hansel and Gretel,” directed by Olivia M. Munk ’16, promises exactly this. The three-act retelling of the classic fairy tale runs Feb. 4-8 at the Agassiz Theater.
While “Hansel and Gretel,” composed in the 1890s by Engelbert Humperdinck, was originally performed in German, this production will use an English libretto. Music director Maxwell P. Phillips ’15 believes this change will make the opera accessible to a wide range of audience members. “Hansel and Gretel is a traditional Märchenoper, a German genre of fairy-tale opera for children,” says Phillips. “[It's] charming, fun, full of great music—and fantastic for people who don’t have much experience with opera.”
The cast is confident that “Hansel and Gretel” will also appeal to the viewers’ nostalgic sensibilities. “All my blockmates are really excited to see it because they’re already familiar with the tale,” says Charlotte L. McKechnie ’15, who plays Hansel. Despite the story’s familiarity, McKechnie thinks that audiences are in for a surprise. "There are enough twists embedded in the opera that you will feel like you are experiencing [Hansel and Gretel] for the first time,” says McKechnie.
Indeed, one of the strengths of “Hansel and Gretel” is its compelling three-dimensionality, one which both enables the opera to transcend its frame of a traditional child’s tale and, according to producer Christina A. Bianco ’17 (who also plays Gertrud, Hansel and Gretel’s mother), to exceed the audience’s expectations. “The nice thing about the opera is that it’s a traditionally longer art form than say, the quick prose of a children’s tale, which provides the opportunity for greater character development,” says Bianco. “I’m only playing the mother, but I’m there on stage for a good half hour, and you get to see that her reasons for sending off her children are complex and not necessarily ‘evil.’”
According to McKechnie, another major source of nuance in the opera is the music. “It’s written for a big orchestra and has a lush, Wagnerian score that’s very good at reflecting the fire and energy of the opera,” she says. “The strong music reflects just how resilient these children are in the midst of hardship.”
The opera’s visuals promise to be just as alluring. “They’ve really got the choreography down,” says producer Sam R. Reynolds ’16. “It’s not easy to act like genuine children, but our Hansel and Gretel (Claudia D. Oh ’17) have mastered it. They’ve got that twinkle in their eye and that childish enthusiasm, like they’re experiencing the world for the first time.”
Reynolds believes that the set design will also stand out to audiences. “Our giant gingerbread house is just spectacular. Its larger-than-life candies are so convincing,” he says. “You’ve really got to see it to believe it, though you might start drooling when you see the actors eat some on stage.” Not that the audience has been neglected in this respect: after the matinee performance on Sunday, Feb. 8, audiences are invited to attend a reception with milk and cookies.