The Brothers Grimm fairy tales could be as bloodthirsty and shockingly terrifying as any Stephen King novel, and none is more horrifying than “Hansel and Gretel.” The story of a murderous, hateful stepmother and a cannibalistic witch taps into something primal that sends tingles down the spine.
The 19th-century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck turned this fairy tale into an opera worthy of his teacher, Richard Wagner. Just as Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” plumbs the depth of the collective unconscious, “Hansel and Gretel” illuminates psychological archetypes.
Humperdinck’s masterpiece, however, is much shorter and full of charming folk tunes.
The Lyric Opera will present “Hansel and Gretel” in an acclaimed production from Minnesota Opera by choreographer and director Doug Varone. It will run for four performances beginning Saturday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It’s somewhat surprising that a piece of this stature hasn’t been performed by the Lyric Opera in more than 30 years.
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According to Deborah Sandler, the Lyric’s general director and CEO, although it’s a Christmas staple in Europe, “Hansel and Gretel” seems to have fallen off the radar of American opera companies.
“I think it is definitely an underperformed masterpiece,” Sandler said.
The “Hansel and Gretel” Varone and set designer David Zinn created is set in Depression-era New York City. The concept preserves the darkness and poverty of the fairy tale while allowing for moments of colorful fantasy. The forest is a decrepit carnival, and the witch is a former sideshow clown known as the Candy Lady.
“The grittiness is offset by the glitziness of Hollywood that for many people of that era was a way to escape all their troubles,” Varone said. “I definitely was thinking of child stars of that era and how they dealt with difficult situations. Like Jackie Cooper in ‘Champ,’ an extraordinary film, and Freddie Bartholomew in ‘Captains Courageous’ and certainly every Shirley Temple film I watched when I was 5.”
During the famous “dream pantomime” scene, Hansel and Gretel imagine themselves as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a Hollywood extravaganza. More fantasy awaits the children when they get lost in the “forest,” a run-down play land inhabited by dancing carnies and the Candy Lady, whose carousel is made of edible gingerbread boys and girls.
“The design work is beautiful,” Sandler said. “David Zinn is a Tony Award-winning set designer, and then we bring to it the artistry of Doug Varone’s dance troupe. They add a lot to the show. That’s what we try to do. We try to entertain people. We try to give them a new vision.”
Varone, who has choreographed and directed an extensive list of operas, including “Salome” at the Met, said the germ of the idea for his “Hansel and Gretel” began with the adage “There’s nothing creepier than a clown.”
“I spent a lot of time rereading the old Grimm’s fairy tales, not just ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ They’re so remarkably dark. As kids we don’t remember that,” Varone said. “I was staggered by the intensity and the horror behind so much of it. So I wanted to hold true to that dark aspect but also find the childlike fun that we all remember growing up and how great we felt at the end when everything turned out well.”
According to Sandler, children ages 8 and up should find it thoroughly enjoyable. Varone agrees.
“We learned that in Minnesota,” Varone said. “The kids loved it. But I don’t think Humperdinck meant it to be a children’s opera. I believe he looked deeply at the fairy tale itself, and within that fairy tale is so much information about who we are as human beings, how we deal psychologically with each other. Our sense of valor and determination. All the human strengths that we have are hidden in that opera.”
Harriman-Jewell adds more stars
As if the Harriman-Jewell Series 2016-17 season weren’t star-studded enough, it recently announced that cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile are being added to the schedule.
The dynamic trio will give a recital on April 27, 2017, at the Kauffman Center.
For his 10th appearance on the Harriman-Jewell Series, Yo-Yo Ma will be joined by two masters of several genres, including jazz and bluegrass, but the Helzberg Hall program will be made up entirely of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.