23 Jan 2011

Which Witch?

by Paula Fowler

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is one of those operas in the standard repertoire that invites a stage director’s imagination to take flight. How to suggest fourteen angels coming from heaven to guard the children as they sleep, and how to fill the extended orchestral “Pantomime” in a beautiful way that fits the music? What should the gingerbread cottage look like, and will there be actual candy on it for the kids to eat?  How to make the witch’s broom act as if it’s magic, in a live theatrical production? And what about that witch….

A few limitations for the director’s dreaming are set by the opera company.  First, casting is done by the company’s artistic staff, usually without the director’s involvement. Our plan, of course, is that we have the best director and the best singing artist cast for each role, but that does mean that the director may have to adapt a prior vision to the actual physicality of the artists the company has contracted.

The director is also not—in general—involved in choosing the set selected for the production. The opera company’s technical and artistic staff must have this planned well in advance of the opera production to ensure staying within budget, so in this area as well, the director has to be accommodating. In the case of Utah Opera’s present production of Hansel and Gretel, we have rented a set constructed by the University of North Carolina School of Design and Production Scene Shop.

To what we might consider the director’s blank canvas, then, Utah Opera has added the cast and the set before the director even picks up a figurative paintbrush.  Our director, David Gately, will put the given elements to play, and then add his own imaginative touches to communicate the story and emotional journey of Hansel and Gretel in a compelling and enjoyable way for our audience.

I hope you will join me in looking forward to two elements of the story-telling in this opera where our director’s touch will especially be evident:

The first is the “Pantomime” at the end of our first act, where Humperdinck composed an orchestral interlude during which fourteen angels typically hover over Hansel and Gretel as they sleep in the forest. The children mention the angels, and number them precisely, in the beautiful “Evening Prayer” duet that immediately precedes the Pantomime. Here are two extreme examples of what other directors have done with this scene: August Everding, who directed a 1981 Viennese production for film, used cinematic magic to present transparent, robed angels encircling the children.  An immense contrast to that version is the 2008 Metropolitan Opera Hansel and Gretel, in which Richard Jones skipped the angels altogether, opting instead for huge puppet-headed chefs presenting a feast…something about which the two hungry children might indeed be dreaming.

The second element to anticipate is the director’s interpretation of the Witch.  Several decisions are affected by casting, and a director might be involved in these crucial discussions: the mezzo-soprano who plays the mother is never on stage at the same time as the witch, so sometimes the mezzo will be cast in both roles, a choice that adds more eeriness to the story.  Another practice that has become fairly usual is to cast a tenor in the role; we expect a witch to be ugly and ungainly, and a man in typical witch garb, with nose and chin extensions, plus ghoulish makeup and a wig, looks and sounds horrifying.  For our present production, a female (mezzo-soprano) was cast by the Utah Opera Artistic staff; however, her official cover (understudy) is the tenor in our Ensemble  Resident Artist program, who, if called to duty, would sing the role an octave lower, but still be dressed like a female witch.

I found fascinating diversity in presentations of the Witch when I recently made a brief survey of readily-available recordings of productions of Hansel and Gretel.  This is never a case of ‘seen one seen ‘em all.’ The easiest recording to find is the 1982 Metropolitan Opera production more famous for starring Frederica von Stade as Hansel than for its director Kirk Browning. The Witch in this production is the stereotype: female, with nose and jaw extensions, several blackened teeth, all old and wrinkly, with gray hair…and also very green: she has a green tongue she keeps sticking out like a snake, a green-tinted Victorian dress with black shawl, and long green fingernails.  She looks a menace from her first entrance.

The Witch in the Viennese film production mentioned earlier appears to be a kindly grandmother, in a black dress with an apron and white mobcap with a bow.  Because this was a version for film, director Everding used lightning flashes at appropriate moments in the music to enact a gradual ‘reveal’ of the actual Witch.  Her hair gradually gets crazier, one of her eyes partially shuts, a mole appears on her chin, and the setting of her kitchen in a deep cellar shows her to be some kind of mad scientist.

Director Katharina Thalbach, who created a Dresden production of Hansel and Gretel in 2006, also wanted to create a Witch whose appearance would lure the children in. She chose for the Witch’s disguise a red-haired curvaceous bombshell, something like Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  I’m not sure whether this witch is alluring or just jaw-droppingly bizarre to the children—they don’t know how to react, and she draws them in.  She too gradually reveals her real appearance when the music turns a little more threatening:  she adds bulkier clothing, grows a hump on her back, loses the wig so that she’s completely bald, and finally adds glasses through which she struggles to see.  It’s an amazing on-stage costume and character change made by the singer alone, while singing.  I imagine that the artist enjoyed the thrill of this costume exchange (much more than she did the bouncy ball—rather than magic broom–on which she hopped around stage during her aria).

You are in for a treat at the opera tonight: you’ll enjoy the artists selected in national auditions by our Utah Opera artistic staff, and see the Hansel and Gretel set that Utah Opera owns.  You’ll hear Humperdinck’s delightful music, sometimes in his Wagnerian style that treats as noble the experience of two children, and at other times in a folk-like style that expresses children’s lives. In addition, you’ll see the visual interpretation of the story of Hansel and Gretel that emerged from the imagination of our director, David Gately. I hope you will eagerly anticipate the Pantomime, when you’ll see his vision of what might happen during the children’s sleep in the woods, and especially look forward to seeing which kind of Witch he wanted as an antagonist for the two kids at the center of this oft-re-imagined tale.