A couple of years ago, I attended a performance of opera scenes by University of Tulsa School of Music students. They performed two scenes from Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and ignited my great love affair with the lively, imaginative German opera.
At the end of Tulsa Opera's 2007-2008 season, during an interview with artistic director Kostis Protopapas, I asked him if Tulsa Opera would consider producing the opera. I was told, in hushed tones, that it was on the bill for the 2008-2009 season. Since then, I've been waiting in eager anticipation for February 21.
The reason I love the opera so much is the same reason everyone else does; the music is exquisite, and the opera has all the whimsy and imagination of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale upon which it is based.
Tulsa Opera performs the Maurice Sendak version of the 19th century opera. Sendak is a children's author and illustrator, best known and loved for his classic Where the Wild Things Are.
Protopapas said his design of Hansel and Gretel is similar in style to Sendak's illustrations -- unique and whimsical, with new and unexpected elements of fantasy that divert from the original fairy tale.
TO's production of Hansel and Gretel will be sung in English, partly so it is more inviting to those who want to bring their children to the show.
In the story, Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister who, after angering their mother, are chased out of the house and told to go pick strawberries. Their father comes home drunk and asks where his children are. When the mother tells him she sent them into the woods, he tells her that a witch lives in the woods and their children are in danger, and they rush into the woods to look for Hansel and Gretel.
In the woods, the children, playing and laughing as they pick and eat strawberries, realize they are lost and become frightened. The Sandman puts them to sleep by sprinkling sand on their eyes, and they dream 14 angels are protecting them. When the Dew Fairy wakes the children, they find themselves in front of a gingerbread house, but they do not notice the Witch, who decides to fatten Hansel up so she can eat him. She puts a spell on the boy and is ready to put him in the oven when Gretel realizes her plan and breaks the spell on her brother. They then trick the Witch and shove her inside the oven.
The roles of Hansel and Gretel are sung by mezzo soprano Blythe Gaissert and soprano Maureen McKay, respectively.
McKay, who performed the role for the first time in 2007 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia -- that time in German -- said she'd admired the opera from afar for years.
"You know when you just know something is right for you?" McKay asked. She said the role of Gretel is just right for her.
And, while she said the role is easier to sing in German, her recent performance taught her a few tricks she brought to Tulsa Opera.
"I figured out the places where I need to be in close contact with the conductor," she said, saying the opera requires a close relationship between the singer and conductor.
Protopapas explained further, saying, "Maureen not only has to sing nonstop, but she also has to dance, she has to sing on her back... In order to achieve that, I have to be very careful to make sure the tempo is right. Because not only does she have to sing, but she also has to dance in this tempo. And I have to make sure that she has time to breathe and catch her breath because she never really stops singing."
The roles of Hansel and Gretel are especially challenging because of the physicality of their scenes. Hansel and Gretel are children, and, as children, they run and jump and play and dance and fall, and Gaissert and McKay must do all of those things while singing at the same time.
Gaissert said she put in extra hours at the gym to get in shape for a role that requires her to "basically run laps around the stage the whole show."
While McKay, Jennifer Roderer, who sings the Witch, and Dana Beth Miller, who sings the Mother, have all performed their roles in previous productions of Hansel and Gretel, this show marks the first time Protopapas has ever conducted the opera.
"It's been a learning experience for me because the performers who have done it before know what they need," said Protopapas. "I am the one shaping the overall musical performance, but it is good to have singers who know what works for them. And also of course, in this case, because we have a really big orchestra (55 musicians) in the pit, my responsibility is to make sure that the orchestra does not overpower the singers.
"Again, the show is very active, and that's the way it should be, because it should be exciting and entertaining. The singers are all over the stage, so we have to make sure that the orchestra does not cover them but that the music is still really alive."
Protopapas applauded the talent of all the singers in the show, including the 35 members of the Tulsa Youth Opera, not only for their vocal talent, but also for their acting and performing abilities.
"Not only are they great singers, but they are also real performers. So there is movement, and they have a lot of fun," Protopapas said. "And what's surprising is how funny a lot of the show is. You don't necessarily think of Hansel and Gretel as being a funny show, but Tara Faircloth (who also directed TO's production of The Magic Flute) directs it with a lot of humor."
Hansel and Gretel opens Saturday, Feb. 21 at 7:30pm in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St., with performances on Feb. 27 at 7:30pm and March 1 at 2:30pm. For tickets, visit tulsapac.com.
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