“Hansel and Gretel” at SF Opera

“Hansel & Gretel” at SF Opera 

Carol Benet

Just in time for the holidays is Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel & Gretel” first produced in 1893 and now playing at the SF Opera.  Taken from the fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, this production is is a visual fun house.

Everyone knows the story so there are not complicated opera plot lines to sort through. And better still there are only eight characters.  A hungry boy Hansel (Sasha Cooke) and his sister Gretel  (Heidi Stober), who have to work to help the impoverished family, are goofing around so that when the mother (Michaela Martens) comes home she knocks over a jug filled with much needed milk and blames the kids.  She is furious with them and in her anger she chases them out into the forest to scrounge up some strawberries to eat.  

The father (Alfred Walker) comes home with lots of food for them all and is so cheerful that the mother thinks he is tipsy.  When she tells him she sent the children into the forest he tells her that a wicked witch (Robert Brubaker) who eats children lives there.  They both rush off to find the children.  And this is the end of the first of three acts.

In Act II the children are gathering strawberries and play that they are the cuckoos that eat the the strawberries all up so there are none to take home.  The children are lost and the Sandman (Ashley Dixon) comes and  they fall asleep while recognizable fairytale characters (Snow White, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc.) scamper in the woods.

In Act III the Dew Fairy (Natalie Image) wakes them up.  They tell each other about their marvelous dreams.  Soon a huge house appears and it is edible and Hansel eats part of the front railing.  The house strangely resembles that of the spooky Bates’ Motel  in Hitchcock’s film “Psycho”.  Anthony McDonald and Associate Set Designer Ricardo Pardo  designed this opera that was co-produced with London’s Royal Opera and opened in Covent Garden last year.  Children in the audience, who are familiar with the strange, wonderful and often frightening aspect of dreams understand this scary fairy tale.  It is right out of Maurice Sendak’s timeless “Where the Wild Things Are”.  

Antony McDonald conceived, directed as well as designed this production. Christopher Franklin conducts the fine Opera Orchestra in the often familiar folksy melodies as well as the beautifully intricate classical music by Humperdinck. Ian Robertson conducts the children’s chorus with very young singers from the SF Girls as well as the SF Boys Chorus.    Lucy Burge’s choreography features the graceful dancer Chiharu Shibata from the SF Opera Corps de Ballet as Will-o’-the-wisp,  It is interesting to note that Humperdinck’s married sister Adelheid Wette wrote the libretto with the goal of providing songs for her four children to sing.  

The seasoned singers Cooke and Stober as the siblings as well as parents Walker and Martens are convincing in their roles and have wonderful, strong voices.  Brubaker’s witch is frightening and amusing at the same time and Dixon’s Sandman and Image’s Dew Fairy cast the proper fairy-tale atmosphere. As frightening as the Grimm Brothers’s tales are, nonetheless, children love them.  Freud and Bruno Bettelheim had  a lot to say why.  

This is a production for the entire family to enjoy for the holidays. There are activities such as the Gingerbread Scavenger Hunt starting in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House for matinee performances on November 30 and December 1.  

Sung in English and appropriate for children older than 6, and adults  “Hansel & Gretel” at SF Opera runs through December 7, 2019. 415 864 3330 or sfopera.com.


About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →