In the Palm Beach Opera’s upcoming trip to the land of make-believe, everything is made of paper and grommets are our friend.
If that sounds odd, how about this: For its December production, which in past years has amounted to such things as outdoor concerts and presentations of huge symphonic works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem, the company is returning to staged opera.
Using only its Young Artists as cast members, the troupe will present Humperdinck’s classic fairy tale, Hänsel und Gretel, in three performances this weekend at the Crest Theatre on the campus of Old School Square in Delray Beach. The opera will be sung in English (as Hansel and Gretel) instead of the original German and will be accompanied by a reduced-size orchestra, led by David Stern, to accommodate the environs of the Crest, which is much smaller than the opera’s usual home in Dreyfoos Hall at the Kravis Center.
The opera, says Fenlon Lamb, a veteran director and semi-retired mezzo who has helmed several shows over the years for Palm Beach Opera, is at once about people pushed to their limits and about inhabiting a place of magic. A mix of dark and light, then, and one that offers a welcome break from the stress of the holidays.
“You can escape a little bit and be taken into another world where you can be a kid again,” Lamb said. “You get to play again. You can imagine all these things happening. And if you’re a kid, you get to do that maybe for the first time and understand a different art form that is not all-omniscient. It’s very accessible.”
Hansel and Gretel is drawn from the Grimm Brothers collection of German folktales, and its story is probably still familiar to most people. A brother and sister go into the forest to gather food for the family, but get lost and wind up at a house made of gingerbread. Unfortunately, the addressee on Tasty Treats Lane is a witch who wants to fatten the children up and eat them.
The children are able to trick the witch into looking into the oven, then shove her in and close the door. There’s an explosion, and the gingerbread figures in the house are turned back into children (the witch had them under a spell), while the witch herself emerges from the oven as a giant gingerbread cake. Hansel and Gretel’s parents arrive, and there is general rejoicing.
Although this opera has often been marketed as a warm-and-fuzzy piece of holiday Gemütlichkeit ideal for kids, much of the opera actually has scary, disturbing ideas in it. And Lamb says that’s an important part of the production because it’s an important part of a child’s reality.
“There are such adult themes, and these are things that kids encounter. We’re not living in a fairy tale,” said Lamb, 49. “It has a very real feel to it.” The mother loses her temper because the kids have broken the milk jar, and she has nothing left to feed them. And the father likes the bottle a little too much.
“You have a mom who explodes,” Lamb said. “Kids can understand when moms get sad. And you have a drunken dad. Well, adults do that.”
A word about the opera’s composer: Humperdinck has the unfortunate distinction of having his name appropriated by an English pop singer of the 1960s and 1970s originally named Arnold Dorsey (anything wrong with that name?). That Engelbert Humperdinck, famed for mega-hits such as “Please Release Me” and “After the Lovin’,” is still making the rounds at age 83, but the real Humperdinck, who lived from 1854 to 1921, was a composer of real distinction whose fame today rests primarily on this opera.
Humperdinck was from the town of Siegburg, Germany, where his father ran a school. His talent for music was encouraged by a family friend, a once well-known composer and pedagogue named Ferdinand Hiller, and Humperdinck repaid Hiller’s faith in him by winning prestigious composition prizes during his studies at music schools in Cologne and Munich.
In 1881, he was hired by Richard Wagner to help him get his latest opera, Parsifal, ready for its first performance at Bayreuth, and ended up working closely with the elder composer, ultimately becoming music tutor to his son, Siegfried. His later career was primarily spent in academia in Berlin, where he taught at several conservatories until ill health, which had plagued him for years, led him to retire in 1920. He was primarily a composer of vocal music — songs, choral pieces and operas — though he also wrote a string quartet and a handful of other instrumental works.
Hansel began life as incidental music for a theatrical treatment of the folktale by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid, and proved so popular in the family circle that Humperdinck rewrote it as an opera. It premiered in Weimar on Dec. 23, 1893, to great acclaim and has been a regular part of the repertory ever since.
Humperdinck was sensitive about having his style compared to Wagner’s, but there is little doubt that he was strongly influenced by the Ring master, not just in overall rich, Romantic language, but also in the resonant, brilliant orchestral scoring he brought to Hansel and his other operas. The most well-known excerpt from Hansel is probably the “Evening Prayer” that closes Act II, in which 14 angels descend from a heavenly staircase to protect Hansel and Gretel as they spend a night in the dark, frightening forest.
Palm Beach Opera’s staging by Lamb is being effectuated by her theatrical house, Papermoon Opera Productions. True to its name, all of the costumes and sets are made of paper (some of it is Tyvek), which makes for far cheaper shipping and handling costs. A tour of the costumes and sets in the company’s warehouses on Florida Avenue in West Palm Beach shows how light the “fabric” of the skirts and dirndls are, and how useful it is to have grommets available to reinforce it when adding laces.
Making the set and costumes out of paper also evokes childhood, Lamb said.
“What we really discovered was that it takes the design process back to that playfulness, that imagination, back to being a kid again and creating from paper, when you used to make a paper hat or forts from cardboard boxes,” she said.
The opera has a small cast of six people, five of whom are women, the sole exception being the Father (Peter), sung here by bass-baritone Ted Allen Pickell. Hansel, being a boy, is sung by a mezzo-soprano (Maria Vasilevskaya) opposite Gretel, a soprano (Patricia Westley). The other three roles also are sopranos: the Witch (Cara Collins), the Sandman (Emily Blair) and the Dew Fairy (Emily Helenbrooke). There also is a children’s chorus, which will be sung by the Young Singers of the Palm Beaches.
“They’re killing it,” Lamb said of her cast. “We staged it in a week. They’ve knocked it out of the park.”
The Witch in this production is inspired by the Russian folk witch Baba Yaga, who lived in a hut that walked on chicken legs. Here, the Witch herself is a chicken.
“Along with this Wagner thing, that Witch sounds like a chicken every time I hear her sing,” Lamb says, laughing, singing a snippet from the opera as she does. “It tickled me, so I said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Collins, the soprano singing the Witch, also sings the role of the Mother (Gertrude), a choice frequently made by directors, and which carries interesting psychological overtones.
“There’s plenty of places where I’ve said (to Cara), ‘Let’s think on this.’ Everything that happens in Act I is a projection of later, of the kids’ imagination about how far they can take their mother,” Lamb said. “The kids experience something in real life and then they go to this fantasy place where they’re free, but all of these other things are still in play … it actually works very nicely to have the Mother and the Witch played by the same person.”
The overriding concept here, though, is the magic of imagination, of play, of childhood, a show in which the audience can experience the kind of heightened emotions we knew as younger people.
“I want people to come and be awed by the fact that this is all on paper. And these young voices are creating roles for the first time. And children are playing in opera. And designers are playing with the set and costumes,” she said. “It’s play, it’s fun, it’s entertainment. I think if we try to say we need this really intense moral at the end of the show, I think we lose a little of that.”
Hansel and Gretel will be performed at 7 pm Friday, Dec. 6; 5 pm Saturday, Dec. 7; and 2 pm Sunday, Dec. 8, at the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets range from $25 to $75; call 833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.