I had a music teacher in third and fourth grade, when I was going to an elementary school in Hillsboro, OR, who at one point taught us a song from an opera based on the old fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel”, called, appropriately enough, Hansel und Gretel. The song is a cheery thing near the beginning of the story when Gretel is teaching Hansel a dance. I remember the teacher, Mrs. Sturdevant (I think that was her name), telling us about the opera that had been written a hundred years or so before, by a composer named “Englebert Humperdinck”. I hate to admit that this particular name had a predictable effect on a room full of nine-year-old children, and I seem to recall Mrs. Sturdevant being a bit irritated that we giggled.
Sorry, Mrs. Sturdevant.
Anyway, I actually bought a recording of Humperdinck’s opera many years ago. It was a pretty nifty CD box that in addition to the 3 CDs and the booklet containing notes and the libretto, also had a little jigsaw puzzle depicting a scene from the opera. There was a period when sometimes CD box sets would come with little things like that, especially if they were recordings of music that might appeal to young listeners. Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel is often considered a children’s opera, because it is not terribly long, it’s full of folk tunes and dances, and its story is loaded with magic and wonder and an evil witch who wants to back the kids in her oven. Hansel und Gretel has become something of a Christmastime staple, even though it doesn’t exactly have anything specifically to do with Christmas. I haven’t heard it more than once or twice and those many years ago, so I addressed that this weekend.
Hansel und Gretel is like Wagner-lite: the orchestration and the drama are pure Wagner (Humperdinck himself was a committed Wagnerian), as is a lot of the imagery in the show. But because the story is lighter and free of Wagner’s heavier tendencies, the opera is a pretty good bridge between the Wagner-parody of Carl Stalling’s work on the Loony Tunes shorts and, well, actual Wagner. As for the opera’s Christmas associations, there’s the story of two children who get into trouble, and the magic of a life-size gingerbread house; also, the opera was premiered very near Christmas in 1893. When you think about it, a lot of our Christmas trappings don’t really have anything to do with Christmas specifically. The Sound of Music song “My Favorite Things” is a good example.
Having freshly heard Hansel und Gretel, I certainly plan to make it a part of my annual listening from now on. The performance I’m featuring here is especially nifty, because it’s actually a film made out of the opera, with Sir Georg Solti conducting (and this type of repertoire was Solti’s wheelhouse, so it’s a treat on that score as well). Live action is combined with animation to create the requisite sense of magic, and the performances are thrilling throughout. This film was intended for television, and aired on PBS’s Great Performances in 1981–not long after Mrs. Sturdevant was dealing with a bunch of kids laughing at the name “Engelbert Humperdinck”.
If you have a spare hour and forty-five minutes, give this a listen! It really is something of a delight. And look at the screen once in a while, because there’s actually usually something neat going on.