Hansel & Gretel concept preview

When I was first approached by Edmonton Opera General Director Tim Yakimec to direct Hansel & Gretel, he gently requested the piece not be a ‘lollipop and candy canes’ version of the opera. There was a desire to have something darker, which I believe suits the piece much better than a light-hearted fairy tale approach.

The eerie elements of Hansel & Gretel have existed from its creation. Going back and reading the Brothers Grimm story, I realized this wasn’t a light little fairy tale. For example, in the original, the kids get kicked out of their house by their stepmother (not mother) twice, and she ends up dead. We also live in a world where stories of missing children and young women are becoming more prevalent, where poverty is still very real, and we read about these every day.

In the early stages of concept work for Hansel & Gretel, I would go into the forest during the day to take in the beauty, greenery, and textures. There’s a feeling of solace and being alive in the forest — you’re in and amongst the living. As the day progressed I would go back, each time not going as far in. And as night fell I was only able to go a few steps. The shadow and the darkness became so terrifying because didn’t know what was there. That idea plays so deeply into our production.

The music itself is quite dark, composed skilfully by Engelbert Humperdinck, who was heavily influenced by Wagner. It is also rich in texture and full of clever techniques such as the use of leitmotifs. Humperdinck goes into the depths of each character, exploring their sorrow and anxiety at being poor, but also their belief in a higher power that will protect them from harm. It feels almost like a film score in places. 

Speaking of which, I used a 1950s film noir titled Night of the Hunter as a jumping off point to get some initial images and create a backdrop for the production. While the film was panned when it came out, it has since become one of the defining films in its genre. There is an intense exploration of light and dark, overpowering shadows and streams of light, and very interesting shapes that transform from real to surreal. This was a great template for us to create a world in which things appear one way and then change completely: a forest that is friendly during the day and in the dark becomes so eerie.

— Rob Herriot, director