It is an oft-spoken bit of sarcasm that the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm lived up to their surname. While their tales typically have happy endings for the "good guys," the "bad guys" are punished in horrific ways — emphasizing to readers young and old the importance of being good and the consequences of being bad. A perfect example of karma and comeuppance walking hand in hand is Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera, "Hansel and Gretel" — to be presented by Boheme Opera NJ, in English, on December 11 at The College of New Jersey Center for the Arts.
The idea for the opera leaped from the pen of Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid, who wrote songs for her children as a Christmas gift based on the Grimms’ story. She asked her brother, Engelbert, to write music for her words — and he pieced the songs together and created a work that has rarely been off the stage since its first performance in 1893. However, like Walt Disney after, Humperdinck decided to tone down the story’s more "grim" elements, maintain the core theme and events — and create a magical, musical childhood fairytale.
The Grimms were not above a little self-editing, either. Their book of fairytales was released in subsequent editions, with their own subtle and not-so-subtle changes along the way. In "Hansel and Gretel" they decided that making the mother the villain would be too traumatic for their young audience members. So — as they did with many mothers in their other stories — they embarked on a campaign that could best be summarized with what should have been their book’s tagline, "Stereotyping Stepmothers, One Story at a Time."
Humperdinck took this one step further. In the Grimm tale, the mother (later stepmother) forces the father to abandon Hansel and Gretel in the forest so that Mom and Dad don’t die of hunger. In the Humperdinck adaptation, the mother chases them out of the house in a fit of frustration at their misbehavior, telling them to go to the forest to pick wild strawberries. Unlike the candidate for parent of the year in the Grimms’ tale, Humperdinck’s mother panics and chases after them with her husband after he tells her that there is an evil witch, with a taste for children, living in the forest.
The outcome, though, is the same: the children escape, the witch dies; good triumphs, evil loses. The difference, of course, is that the opera is full of beautiful melodies and images – fairies, angels and candy houses – that help to make it a confection for the ear and eye.
"Hansel and Gretel" was created as a holiday gift for children — this year, treat yourself and the children in your life to this timeless classic. Happily ever after never tasted so good!
Hansel & Gretel. December 11 at 3:00 p.m. Kendall Hall on the campus of TCNJ. Directed by Brent Monahan and conducted by Boheme Opera NJ Artistic Director Joseph Pucciatti. Starring mezzo-soprano Jessica Renfro, Hansel and soprano Jendi Tarde as Gretel and soprano Francesca Mondanaro as The Witch. For tickets and information, visit www.tcnj.edu/~arts/facilities/tcnjboxoffice or www.bohemeoperanj.com.