Hänsel und Gretel


This page provides a transcript of the videos and voiceovers on the Opera Land website relating to Hänsel and Gretel

Introduction

Welcome to this introduction to the opera of Hänsel and Gretel. But first things first – The German composer who wrote it had a wonderful name - ….. Engelbert Humperdinck.’

Engelbert Humperdinck was incredibly successful with this opera. Audiences have loved it since its first performance over 100 years ago. And who can blame them? It’s got great tunes, a huge orchestra, fun characters and a story you might know bits of already.

But I think the main reason this opera was an instant hit, could be because Humperdinck wrote the music in a German romantic style that music lovers couldn’t get enough of. Like so many other composers at the time, his music was inspired by his teacher, the composer, Richard Wagner. Wagner wowed the world with his wonderful operas - and one of them really does feature a large lady wearing a Viking helmet.

These romantic Germans loved using myths and fairy tales for inspiration. Humperdinck’s version of Hänsel and Gretel started life as music for a puppet show his sister was putting on at home. The family loved it and encouraged Engelbert to build on its success. With his sister writing the words, Humperdinck ended up with a whole opera that’s still performed around the world to this day!

Explaining ‘Leitmotif’

To help an audience really enjoy, and sometimes find meaning in Hänsel and Gretel, a team of people come together and make some big decisions.
The opera director decides how the story’s told and how the singers should act.
The conductor decides on the tempo and feel of the music.
The designer decides how it’s all going to look, and then there’s lighting, costume and make up decisions to make as well. And if the opera’s being sung in German, the super-titles above the stage translate everything into English.

But on top of all that, Humperdinck writes theme tunes that he repeats throughout the opera. And he wants the audience to match them up with themes in the story, or with characters or even objects. The opera word for this kind of music is ‘Leitmotif’ - a German word that means ‘Leading Idea’.

So, whenever we hear this leitmotif, Humperdinck reminds the audience of the stories main point, which is ‘Don’t worry, good will triumph over evil’. At one point the children sing it as an evening prayer.

And when we hear this leitmotif, the composer wants us to associate it with a broomstick, the symbol for the evil witch. (Dom plays on piano).

Here’s her ‘I’m just a harmless little old lady’ music. (Dom plays on piano) Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But actually, when the witch sings it, it gets nasty.

Here’s one of my favourite tunes – not really a leitmotif ‘cos it’s only heard once.
But you could call it the theme tune for the drunken father.

(Father’s music) Dom sings and plays theme at piano

‘We’re so skint – my kids want supper
How I wish that we were upper class,
‘cos then we’d have food a plenty,
as it is, our larders empty.
Tra la la la, tra la la la
Hunger whets the appetite!

Tra la la la, tra la la la
Off to bed without a bite!

Synopsis

The story begins with a brother and sister. Hänsel is 10, and his sister, Gretel, about 8. They’re very poor and live in an old cardboard box with their parents, who are out at work.
Mum has told them to do the housework, but they’re so bored, and with no food in the house, so incredibly hungry. They start playing games, charging around the house – but the messing about is suddenly interrupted by the return of their very stressed out mum. She’s furious that they haven’t done any housework, and in her anger, knocks over the jug of milk that was going to be supper. In a total rage, she sends the children out into the forest to pick strawberries. Big mistake.

Poor mum is so exhausted by their life of poverty, she breaks down in tears. How is she going to feed her kids? To make matters worse, her husband has just come home from work, and he’s drunk again, singing one of his stupid drinking songs.

Luckily for him, he earned some money in town selling brooms, so he’s popped down the supermarket and brought home the evening meal. His wife cheers up at the sight of all the food, and even has a beer herself. But where are the children, dad asks.
In the forest, gathering strawberries, mum explains. What? Dad is horrified. There’s a child-eating witch out there! They set out to look for their children...

Meanwhile, Hänsel and Gretel are eating all the strawberries they’ve gathered from amongst the rubbish of the polluted forest. But it’s getting dark. They realise they don’t know the way home. The Sandman appears, a little man that helps children get to sleep by sprinkling them with magic dust. The children say their evening prayers and fall asleep. Fourteen angels appear and protect them from the danger of the night.

At dawn, The Dew Fairy sprinkles the children with dew to wake them. They see a supermarket in the distance, with nothing but aisles of sweets, and it’s all free! They grab a bag of cakes, when suddenly a witch sneaks up and grabs the children. They try to escape but the witch casts a spell and stops them. Hänsel is put into a cage and the witch tells Gretel he needs fattening up before she eats him. Releasing Gretel from the spell, the witch orders her to help with the oven. Clever Gretel secretly uses a spell to free Hänsel from the cage. As the witch shows Gretel how to check the oven, the children push her in.

Now that the witch is dead, all the other children she’s ever fattened up come back to life, but they’re under a spell, and can hardly move. Hänsel invokes a magic formula and the spell is broken. The children thank them for their help. Hänsel and Gretel’s overjoyed parents finally find them, and the family are reunited as they gather round a shopping trolley loaded with food.

Characters

Hänsel

Hänsel is a ten-year old boy who lives with his sister and parents on the edge of a forest. Like most ten-year old boys, Hänsel is adventurous, brave, and ultimately very protective of his sister who often winds him up.
You’ll notice that although Hänsel looks like a boy, his character is actually played by a woman. This is because there’s no way a real 10 year-old boy could sing the music that Hänsel sings. It’s much too difficult, and what’s more, it takes years of training to learn how to sing powerfully enough to be heard over an orchestra. A young woman is the next best thing, as they look and sound more boyish than a man pretending to be a boy. In opera, when women play boys or men, it’s called a ‘trouser role’.

Gretel

Gretel is Hänsel’s younger sister, and of course by contrast with her very boyish brother, has many more ‘girly’ things to do. She loves singing and dancing and making garlands out of the rubbish she finds in the forest. It seems that she’s more easily scared than Hänsel, but in the end, it’s down to Gretel’s bravery that Hänsel is freed from the witch’s cage. Of course, you’ll notice that Gretel is played by a young woman and not a young girl. Just like Hänsel, no young girl could possibly sing such a strenuous role as Gretel, so a young woman is the next best thing.

As you watch these two singers, notice how exhausting it must be to sing either of these roles. Not only do you have to leap around the house, dance and act - you also have to keep singing, and be heard over the sound of a huge orchestra, without the help of a microphone! This is why opera singers have to train for years and years before attempting to sing roles like Hänsel and Gretel - Just like great athletes train for years when they’ve set their sights on a gold medal.

The Witch

The witch is pure evil, and lives deep in the forest. Children are lured by the sight of her magnificent house, which is actually a supermarket packed with sweets and where everything’s free! Once she captures them she likes to fatten children up before putting them in her oven. Notice that the witch is actually sung by a man dressed as a woman. The role can be sung by as well, but that’s a decision for the opera director to make.

Mother

Hänsel and Gretel’s mother is not the evil step-mother you might expect from other versions of this story. Instead, she is their real mum, and she loves her children very much. But the stress of poverty, work and raising the kids is too much for her. She looses her temper and sends them off into the forest, much to her regret.

Father

Coincidentally, for a story featuring witches and broomsticks, Hänsel and Gretel’s father is a broom salesman! He’s more carefree than his wife, maybe because he drinks to ease the pain of poverty. In any case, when his wife tells him that she’s sent the kids into the forest, he’s horrified and spring into action to save them.