Is it based on a popular kids’ fairy tale? Yes. Does it have cutesy rhymes and folk melodies? Sure. But Hansel & Gretel is definitely not just for the little ones. In fact, if you bring kids to experience this opera, they will be at a pretty high level of music appreciation by the end of it. They’ll be ready for The Ring Cycle next!
The maturity and complex musical themes in Hansel & Gretel are no surprise considering composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) trained under Richard Wagner, who created masterpieces such as Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, The Flying Dutchman, and of course, The Ring Cycle. Wagner’s knack for rich, soaring orchestrations that tell larger-than-life stories of heroes, epic journeys, and ill-fated lovers definitely rubbed off on Humperdinck’s style.
There are several instances throughout the overture, interludes, and forest scenes in Hansel & Gretel where Humperdinck taps into his Wagnerian vocabulary to express the darkness and weight of this story. A particularly chilling moment happens when the children realize they are lost in the forest; as they say “Who’s there?”, their voices echo through the trees, followed by a tense cuckoo sound that leads to complete silence. The music resumes menacingly and the children begin to freak out, ending in a whirlwind of vocal and orchestral panic just before the Sandman arrives to calm them down.
What makes Hansel & Gretel more than just ‘Wagner-lite’ however is Humperdinck’s love of folk melodies, which relate more closely to his fascination with the intimate and approachable world of fairy tales. The childlike simplicity of ‘tra la las’ helps make the characters more human and the music more memorable.
Through Hansel & Gretel, Humperdinck tells a story that will appeal to the child in all of us, but will also engage young people in a very mature musical sensibility. He ensures that great opera can feel equally at home while you tuck your kids into bed as it does on a large stage.