By the end of Engelbert Humperdinck’s operatic adaptation of the 19th-century Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s easy to conclude that America has it all wrong. Teaching children healthy eating habits is not the way to lower childhood obesity; the methods outlined by fairy tales would prove to be much more effective than the food pyramid if implemented on a mass scale. If terror works with adults, why not children? How many kids would really want to eat that candy bar door knowing that, inside, there’s a hungry witch waiting to eat them?
The Opera Theater of Yale College (OTYC) has revived the tale of this unfortunate brother and sister duo in the Pierson-Davenport Auditorium with the help of a few graduate students, including the Opera’s director Rebecca Wolff DRA ’09 and lighting director Burke Brown DRA ’07. While most vocally inclined Yalies associate themselves with a cappella groups, these undergrads have taken refuge in the underrated classical form of opera. Through meticulous attention to the theatrical and musical elements of the work, they succeed in creating an unnerving walk through childhood fairy tales.
The OTYC has brought this classic tale to life by selecting an incredibly talented cast. Each singer from soprano to baritone delivers a stellar performance. Of these amazing voices, the protagonists Hansel, sung by Elizabeth Picker ’09, and Gretel, sung by Lauren Libaw ’09, truly capture the innocence and fear of the two lost children.
Picker embodies the image of a rambunctious younger brother perfectly, allowing the audience to forget that Picker is actually a woman playing the role of a little boy. In turn, Libaw’s warm portrayal of Gretel as the strong, calm and collected older sister is elevated by the strength of her voice and her motherly presence. The magnitude of the terrifying situation in which the two children are placed is so intense that their emotions transcend the limitations of the stage and spill over into the audience.
But the performer who fully embraces the spotlight — in fact, she’s the only one who gets a spotlight — is Annie Rosen ’08, who plays the famished, evil Knusperhexe (“nibbling witch”). Rosen not only manages to capture the witch’s evil nature, but also provides the comic relief necessary to break the audience’s trance-like enchantment and remind it that the story ends happily.
Humperdinck’s beautifully brooding music further highlights the outstanding performance of the cast members. Wolff and the music director and conductor, Dan Schlosberg ’10, share the incredibly small stage effectively with the scenery (designed by Caitlin Hevner DRA ’07) on the left and the orchestra on the right. They manage to couple the sound of the orchestra perfectly with the singers’ voices, recreating the sensation of being in a large opera house rather than the tiny auditorium. Although the theater is small, the overall shape enriches the sounds of the instruments and the voices of the singers.
Although the opera is sung in both German and English, there is surprisingly very little confusion. The arias switch back and forth from German to English with ease, the language chosen more for the ability to fit the music than for narrative clarity. Because the story of Hansel and Gretel is universal, the overall plot would be understandable even if the entire opera were in German with no superscripts. In any case, the music is so beautifully performed that even a language like German, which at times seems too coarse for an opera, is transformed into a sweet lulling sound.
While the Yale campus is filled with modern forms of entertainment, the OTYC is making sure that classical arts, which are often ignored by younger generations, continue to be accessible. And since the group also offers revolutionary child-rearing lessons, Yalies who brave the cold this weekend will not only enjoy an incredible show, but will also receive practical instruction in how to protect their future children from childhood obesity and hungry Knusperhexen.