Lyric Opera of Chicago’s
STUDENT MATINEE STUDY GUIDE
Hansel and Gretel
2 HANSEL AND GRETEL:
A Selected Cultural and Historical Timeline
8 AN ANNOTATED SYNOPSIS
11 MORE THAN A ONE-HIT WONDER
13 FAIRY TALES AND CHILDHOOD
16 THE HUNGER GAMES:
Notes on Lyric Opera’s Production
17 THE MUSIC
19 FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Please use the following Key for the curricular connections
within each article:
English Social Science/History Music
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Authors: Maia Morgan with Jesse Gram
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Hansel and Gretel
a selected historical and cultural timeline
The U.S. declares war with
Britain over freedom of the
seas (War of 1812).
Napoleon’s Grand Army invades
Russia in June. Forced to retreat in
winter, most of Napoleon’s 600,000
men are lost.
The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and
Wilhelm, publish Children’s and
Household Tales (Kinder und
Hausmärchen), a collection of German
fairy tales that includes “Hansel and
Mexico becomes a republic three
years after declaring independence
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
premieres in Vienna.
Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce takes the
world’s first photograph.
Slavery abolished in the
1812 1824 1826 1833 1837 1839
Victoria becomes queen of Great
Britain, ushering in the Victorian
Era, which will last until her
death in 1901.
Charles Babbage, an English
inventor, and mechanical engineer,
designs the “analytical engine,”
a precursor of the computer.
First Opium War (to 1842)
between Britain and China, over
importation of drug into China.
Ludwig Bechstein’s German Fairy Tale Book (Deutsches
Märchenbuch) outstrips the Grimm collection in popularity.
Some scholars think that Bechstein’s softened version of
“Hansel and Gretel” is the one which will inspire Adelheid
Physician Crawford Long uses
anesthetic for the first time to
remove a tumor from a patient
Edgar Allan Poe publishes The Raven and Other Poems.
Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery
and joins the Underground Railroad.
Failure of potato crop causes
famine in Ireland.
Frederick Douglass launches
The North Star.
Elias Howe patents the sewing machine.
1842 1845 1846 1848 1851
Herman Melville publishes Moby Dick. Although the novel
initially garners mixed reviews, the first chapter’s opening line,
“Call me Ishmael,” will become one of the most famous in
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott present the Women’s
Declaration of Sentiments at the Women’s Right’s Convention in
Seneca Falls, NY: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men
and women are created equal…The history of mankind is a history of
repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman,
having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over
her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The
Communist Manifesto is published
(in German) in London by a group of
German political refugees
Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle
Tom’s Cabin. Upon meeting her ten years
later, Abraham Lincoln will dub her “the
little woman who wrote the book that
started this great war.”
Engelbert Humperdinck is born at
Siegburg in the Rhine Province.
“Resist much, obey little. Once unquestioning
obedience, once fully enslaved.” Walt
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is both praised as a
masterpiece and condemned as obscene.
Charles Darwin publishes his Origin of
1852 1854 1855 1859 1861 1862
Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia,
Louisiana, and Texas secede from the Union,
joining South Carolina which seceded the
previous year; they form the Confederate
States of America with Jefferson Davis as
president. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee,
North Carolina follow. Confederates fire on
Fort Sumter, and the U.S. Civil War begins.
Lincoln inaugurated 16 th president
Lincoln proclaims abolition
of slavery in the U.S.
Lewis Carroll publishes Alice’s Adventures
Lincoln fatally shot at Ford’s Theater
by John Wilkes Booth.
Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox,
ending the Civil War.
Displaying controversial works Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and
Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, The Salon des
Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects) in Paris introduces a new movement
in art that will come to be known as Impressionism.
The Chicago Fire wreaks havoc on
the Windy City, causing hundreds of
deaths and over 190 million dollars
German Empire is proclaimed with
Kaiser Wilhelm I as emperor.
1863 1865 1871 1874 1876
Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.
Three days later he will speak the famous
sentence “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to
see you,” into the transmitter, and his partner,
Thomas Watson, listening at the receiving end
in another room, will hear the words clearly.
With the completion of
Götterdämmerung, Richard Wagner
finishes his Ring cycle begun in 1848.
A young Humperdinck will see it four
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake
premieres at the Bolshoi
Theatre in Moscow.
“We will make electricity so cheap that only the
rich will burn candles.” Thomas A. Edison invents
the practical electric light.
The Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
The Brooklyn Bridge and the Metropolitan
Opera House are completed in New York City.
1877 1879 1883 1886 1888
Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago kills
seven policemen. Eight alleged anarchists are
accused—three are imprisoned, one commits
suicide, four are hanged.
Jack the Ripper murders an unknown
number of women in the Whitechapel
district of London. Today there are over
one hundred theories about the Ripper’s
identity, and the murders have inspired
multiple works of fiction.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel
premieres in Weimar.
Jane Addams founds Hull
House on Chicago’s Near
Adolf Hitler born in what is
On Christmas Day, Hansel and
Gretel is the first complete
Metropolitan Opera radio
1889 1893 1895 1921 1931 1965
New Zealand becomes first country
in the world to grant women the right
Auguste and Louis Lumière premiere
motion pictures in Paris. The lineup
includes Repas de Bébé (Baby’s Meal)
and La Pêche aux Poissons Rouges
(Fishing for Goldfish).
X-rays are discovered by German
physicist Wilhelm Roentgen.
q Which of the events on the timeline do you feel has most influenced
your own life and why?
q Explain how one or more of events on the timeline are related to one
Humperdinck dies at the age of 67.
British pop singer Arnold George Dorsey takes the stage
name Engelbert Humperdinck. In 1969 he will keep the
Beatles from the #1 spot on the charts with his rendition
of “Release Me.”
q Choose a work of literature or art and make your own cultural/historical
timeline of events that may be relevant to the work you selected.
Hansel and Gretel
Märchenspiel 1 in three acts in German by Engelbert Humperdinck 2
Libretto by Adelheid Wette 3
Based on a version of the folk tale by the Brothers Grimm
Premiered December 23, 1893, Hoftheater, Weimar 4
(in order of vocal appearance)
Gretel - a little girl ..................................................................... Soprano
Hansel - Gretel’s brother ............................................... Mezzo-soprano 5
Gertrud - Hansel and Gretel’s mother .............................Mezzo-soprano
Peter - Hansel and Gretel’s father, a broom-maker ....................Baritone
The Sandman - a fairy that puts children to sleep ...................... Soprano
The Dew Fairy - a fairy that wakes sleeping children ................. Soprano
The Witch - an enchantress that eats children .................Mezzo-soprano
Time: Once upon a…
Place: A forest near the Ilsenstein 6
ACT I The broom-maker’s cottage
ACT II The forest
ACT III The Witch’s house
1 Märchen is the diminutive of the old German word Mär,
which means story or tale; therefore, it means a “little
story.” A märchen was originally a little story from a long
time ago, when the world was still magic. Spiel is a play.
3 AH-del-hyde VET-tuh, Humperdinck’s sister
4 City in Germany with a rich cultural heritage
5 The part of Hansel is what in opera is called a “trouser
role,” a male character that is sung and acted by a
female singer. Usually the character is an adolescent or
young man and is sung by a mezzo-soprano or contralto.
6 The Ilsestein, formerly called the Ilsenstein, is a tourist
attraction near the town of Ilsenburg in the Harz
Mountains of central Germany. The rocky
outcropping rises 492 feet over the Ilse River,
and lies at an elevation of 1555 feet above
Alone in a rustic cottage, Hansel 7 and Gretel, 8 children of a poor broom-maker, are doing
chores. The family has fallen on hard times, and the children are near starving. As they
work, they try not to think about food. Gretel sings a nursery rhyme 9 (Song: Suse, liebe
Suse), and Hansel adds his own verse, but everything reminds them of their gnawing
hunger. Next, the children play a game, which ends with Gretel teaching her brother
how to dance (Duet: Brüderchen, komm, tanz mit mir). The lesson gets increasingly
out of hand and the children are coltishly running around the room when their mother,
Gertrud, bursts through the door interrupting their play. Furious at her children’s antics,
she knocks over a pitcher of milk–the only food in the house, then orders Hansel and
Gretel into the woods to gather strawberries, 10 promising to beat them if they fail to fill
their basket to the brim. Once alone, Gertrud laments the family’s dire circumstances
(Scene: Da liegt nun der gute Topf in Scherben!). Soon the family’s father, Peter, is heard
in the distance, singing a happy tune on his way home (Aria: Ral-la-la-la, ral-la-la-la). He’s
tipsy from celebrating his luck: he’s sold every one of his brooms, 11 and his knapsack is
full of provisions for his family. He and Gertrud rejoice over the bounty, but when Peter
asks after the children, Gertrud tells him that she has sent them into the woods; they
could be at the Ilsenstein for all she knows. Horror-struck, Peter reminds his wife that the
Ilsenstein is home to an evil and voracious witch 12 who rides a broomstick, lures children
to her house with magic cakes, and bakes them alive into gingerbread (Ballad: Eine Hex’,
steinalt). Gertrud, too, becomes terrified, and the frantic couple rush off to search for their
children in the woods 13 (Interlude: Der Hexenritt/The Witches’ Ride).
The shadow of the Ilsenstein looms over the children in the forest. Gretel sings a folksong
(Song: Ein Männlein steht im Walde). They have a basket full of berries that will pass
7 A variant of Hans (Scandinavian, German, Danish, Hebrew) and John
(Hebrew) Hansel means “God is gracious.”
8 A variant of Greta (German) and Margaret (Greek), Gretel means
9 According to historian David Buch, the term “nursery rhyme” isn’t
German, so it’s not quite accurate. Kinderlieder (children’s song) is
closer, or Kindervolkslieder (children’s folk song). But the German
“Volk” differs from the English “folk,” carrying with it a nationalistic
association. The melody Humperdinck uses dates back to the 14 th
10 In the 15 th century the strawberry was first illustrated in a German
botanical volume called Herbarius Latinus Moguntiae, the Herbal
of Mainz. Interestingly, this volume and the herbals that followed,
speaks only of the strawberry as a medicine. During medieval times,
strawberries symbolized righteousness and perfection. Stone masons
applied their carved strawberry signs onto altars and at the tops of
pillars in churches and cathedrals.
11 The fact that Hansel and Gretel’s father sells brooms and the witch
rides one connects the adults in the story and asks the question, who
can the children trust? Stories of witches exist in cultures around the
world. In Jungian psychology, the witch is a personification of evil
which eventually consumes itself. The witch symbolizes the destructive
power of the unconscious (Luthi 1976).
12 Jack Zipes finds it interesting that Hansel and Gretel never blame their
parents for their abandonment (in the Grimms’ version). He states that
the witch symbolizes the feudal system with her greed and treasures.
When the children kill her, the story shows the “hatred which the
peasantry felt for the aristocracy as hoarders and oppressors” (Zipes
13Over a quarter of Germany is forested. In the Grimms’ tales, the forest
is a supernatural world, a place where anything can happen and often
does. According to Jungian psychology, the forest is a representation
of the feminine principle and is identified with the unconscious.
The foliage blocks the sun’s rays, the sun being associated with the
male principle. The forest symbolizes the dangerous side of the
unconscious, its ability to destroy reason (www.surlalunefairytales.
of their labor until the basket is empty again. Without time or light enough to gather more berries,
Hansel and Gretel realize they are lost. They quickly grow afraid, imagining wild animals and spirits
behind every tree. With the children on the verge panic, the Sandman 14 appears, calms them down,
and sprinkles sand into their eyes to help them fall asleep (Aria: Der kleine Sandmann bin ich). As the
Sandman tiptoes away, Gretel drowsily reminds her brother that they must say their evening prayer. The
two kneel side by side and ask God to send angels to protect them while they sleep 15 (Evening Prayer:
Abends, will ich schlaffen geh’n).
Hansel and Gretel are awakened by the Dew Fairy, who sprinkles mist in their eyes (Aria: Der kleine
Taumann heiβ’ ich). They playfully imitate a sunrise birdsong (Duet: Tirelireli). The children spy a house
through the trees, strangely decorated with edible treats and circled by gingerbread figures 16 (Duet: O
herrlich Schlösschen). Despite their initial wariness, the temptation is too great for the famished siblings,
and they scamper to stuff themselves with sweets. The witch appears and beckons them inside. When
they try to run, the witch paralyzes them with a magic spell and begins feeding the helpless Hansel to
fatten him up. She undoes her spell on Gretel and orders her to ready the house for a banquet.
After stoking her enormous oven, the witch gleefully envisions her upcoming feast (Aria: Hurr Hopp
Hopp Hopp). While unobserved, Gretel cleverly breaks the paralyzing spell on her brother by repeating
the witch’s incantation. The witch tries to trick Gretel into the oven by asking her to lean in and check on
some gingerbread. Cleverly playing dumb, Gretel asks her to show her how. When the witch bends over
to demonstrate, the children push her into the oven, slam the door shut and celebrate her demise (Duet:
Nun ist di Hexe tot).
With the death of the witch, the gingerbread figures surrounding the house turn back into the real
children they once were, though they remain frozen, deep in an enchanted sleep. Awakened by the
touch of Gretel’s hand (Children: Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit), the children are freed when Hansel
repeats the Witch’s incantation. The grateful children sing and dance around Hansel and Gretel
(Children’s chorus: Die Hexerei ist nun vorbei). Peter and Gertrud enter and embrace their children.
The witch has turned into an enormous gingerbread cake, and all rejoice and give thanks to heaven.
q To annotate, as seen in this synopsis, is to supply with or comment
on with critical or explanatory notes. Select a fairy or folk tale and
annotate it with pertinent facts/references.
Adapted from a synopsis by Jean Kellogg
activities muster with their mother. But hunger gets the best of the children, and one by one, they eat the fruits
14 The Sandman is a mythical character in Northern
European folklore who brings good dreams by
sprinkling magical sand onto the eyes of children
while they sleep at night.
15 The fourteen angels of the lost children’s prayer
derived from the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group
of Roman Catholic saints whose intercession was
believed to be particularly effective against various
diseases. This group originated in the 14 th century in
the Rhineland in response to the plague epidemic
that became known as the Black Death.
16 In the original version of Hansel and Gretel, the
witch’s house is not described as gingerbread.
Germany’s rich tradition of creating gingerbread
houses and other items has caused the house to
be described as gingerbread in subsequent tellings
more than a
What does Engelbert Humperdinck have in common with
novelist Harper Lee and Bahamian band Baha Men?
All three have been characterized as “one-hit wonders”—Lee for her masterful
novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the only book she ever published, Baha Men
for the pop tune “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and Humperdinck for his tour
de force Hansel and Gretel, which has scarcely dimmed in popularity since
its premiere in 1893. Although Humperdinck is primarily remembered and
celebrated for his classic reimagining of the fairy tale, he enjoyed a flourishing
career as a conductor, professor, and composer of music.
Humperdinck was born in September of 1854. He wrote his first composition
at age seven, a duet for himself and his piano teacher, and after seeing his first
opera as a teen, he composed his earliest works for the stage, two Singspiele
(a traditionally German operatic form, usually comedic, that’s characterized
by spoken dialogue). Humperdinck’s parents tried to discourage him from
a career in music, steering him toward architecture instead. Nevertheless,
when he turned eighteen, he entered the Cologne Conservatory where he
excelled in voice and composition, earning scholarships and awards. In 1879
he traveled to Italy where he met Richard Wagner, the illustrious German
composer. The previous year, Humperdinck had heard Wagner’s Ring, and
he leapt at the chance to work with his idol. Humperdinck assisted in the
production of Wagner’s Parsifal—making copies of the score and coaching the
boys’ choir—and tutored the composer’s son in music. When a scene change
in Parsifal took longer than the four and a half minutes of music Wagner had
allotted for it, the composer even allowed Humperdinck to write a few bars
of the opera, though these were deleted after the premiere. An exhilarated
I ran home, quickly sketched out a few transitional bars, orchestrated
them, and incorporated them into the original score. Then, filled with
anxious expectancy, I took the original to the Master. He looked through
the leaves, nodding affably, then said, ‘Well, why not? It should work! Be
off with you to the Chancellery and copy out the parts, so that we can get
on.’ No sooner said than done. The sets and music were now in glorious
accord and no one in the audience had the least suspicion at any of the
performances that the score had been patched together by a back street
cobbler plying his modest trade. (Monsalvat – The Parsifal Pages, Derrick
Everett, 1996-2011, monsalvat.no/verwndlg.htm)
Wagner’s influence on his protégé was huge. Indeed, Humperdinck claimed
that he would ”give up originality if it meant he could write choruses like
those in Parsifal.” But for the next ten years after working with his mentor, the
composer seemed stuck. He wasn’t idle—he taught, wrote some orchestral
pieces, edited and arranged music, wrote criticism, and worked as a guest
conductor. He said he wanted to compose music for a work that “was not
made up of murders, brutal deaths, operetta-like nonsense, or sugar-sweet
fairy tales.” (Ashman, Mike, “I’m in a State of Bliss,” The Guardian, 12 August,
2004.) But the right material hadn’t come along to inspire him.
Then, in 1890, Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, asked him to compose
some songs for a puppet show her daughters were giving at home, and Hansel
and Gretel was born. The project started with a modest four songs; those grew
into a Singspiel of sixteen songs with piano accompaniment and connecting
dialogue, and by January 1891, the composer had begun a complete
orchestration. The opera premiered in Weimar two days before Christmas,
1893, to instant acclaim.
Within a year, Hansel and Gretel had appeared in over seventy different
theaters. It appealed to an opera-going public who loved Wagner yet were
ready for something new. Like Wagner, Humperdinck utilized leitmotifs
(musical themes that identify certain characters or thematic ideas—think
the shark music in Jaws) and orchestration that was thick and richly
textured. In keeping with his opera’s source material, Humperdinck paired
those Wagnerian techniques with traditional German folk songs, thereby
capitalizing on the Romantic, nationalist predilection of the era for celebrating
art forms considered native to the fatherland. It did not go unnoticed. Richard
Strauss, who conducted, applauded the “devilishly difficult” score, and
praised the opera as “original, new, and so authentically German.”
Though none of his subsequent operas were as successful as Hansel and
Gretel, Humperdinck’s work continued to be well received by audiences and
critics alike. In addition to other operas, he composed music for a number of
Berlin productions, including several Shakespeare plays.
He continued to compose, completing his final work, Gaudeamus, with the
help of his son, Wolfram in 1918. On September 26,1921, Humperdinck
attended his son’s first effort as an opera director. He suffered a heart attack at
the theater and died the next day. The Berlin State Opera performed Hansel
and Gretel in his memory a few weeks later.
q Select another one-hit wonder to research. Describe the qualities
and characteristics of the work that made it so popular.
Why do you think that particular author, musician, or composer
did not experience continued success with other works?
q What is it about Hansel and Gretel that has made it such a longtime
activities In 1912, Humperdinck suffered a stroke, which left his left hand paralyzed.
Hansel and Gretel has remained Humperdinck’s most popular work. In 1923
the Royal Opera House in London chose it for their inaugural complete opera
broadcast on the radio, and eight years later it was the first opera transmitted
live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Although Humperdinck
was more than a “one-hit wonder,” his masterpiece Hansel and Gretel can
certainly be described as a hit.
q Wagner and Humperdinck were not the only composers to use
leitmotifs, or musical themes.
Consider your favorite movies or television shows—which of them
contain characters that have theme music? What personality trait
or emotions does this character’s music convey?
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
- L. P. Hartley
Is childhood a sacred time of innocence and wonder? Or is it merely a kind
of waiting room for adulthood? Our conception of childhood has changed
many times over the course of human history. A six or seven year old today, at
least in the western, industrialized world, is more likely to be learning to read
and ride a bike than working in a field or factory to help support her family as
did many 19 th century children. Some sociologists assert that childhood is a
“social construction.” In other words, people’s understanding of childhood—
how children differ from adults and how they should be raised—depend on
the time and place in which they live. The history of fairy tales—from the
Grimm Brother’s first collection, to Humperdinck’s family-friendly opera
adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel” to contemporary Disney princess movies—
can tell us a lot about how views of childhood in the western world have
changed over the centuries.
The rise of romanticism in the 19th century brought with it an interest in
national literature and culture including traditional folk tales. In Germany,
sibling scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set out to collect, transcribe, and
publish the tales of their fatherland. In 1812, they published the collection
Children’s and Household Tales, which included “Hansel and Gretel.” Their
volume’s title notwithstanding, the Grimms did not originally intend the
stories for children. Many of the original tales were full of violence, sex, and
very unhappy endings. One story was actually called “How Some Children
Played at Slaughtering” and was every bit as bloody as its title suggests.
In the Medieval Europe that gave rise to Grimm’s folk tales, childhood looked
quite different than it does today. For example, children drank wine with their
meals, though it wasn’t recommended for kids under five! Discipline was
strict, with most parents adhering to the dictum of “spare the rod, spoil the
child,” and it was not uncommon for kids to witness gory public executions.
Living quarters could be cramped, and children
were not necessarily shielded from bawdy
language or sex. So, some of the tales’
coarseness and brutality reflected
the medieval culture from which they
By the time the Grimms published their Children’s and
Household Tales, however, ideas about childhood had
already changed. Initially, the brothers added a parental
advisory to their introduction, suggesting parents
steer children toward the less disturbing tales. But in
subsequent editions the Grimms (and countless authors
and editors following in their footsteps) sought to soften
the tales’ rough edges. They took out the sex and some of
the violence and added morals. For example in the first
edition of Kinder und Hausmärchen, the prince’s visits to
Rapunzel’s tower result in an unplanned pregnancy, a plot
twist that was left out of later versions of the story.
Humperdinck composed Hansel and Gretel eighty years
later, when the Victorian Era was in full swing; ideas about
childhood had undergone another seismic shift. Childhood
was now seen as a time of innocence and dependence.
Children should be protected from the harsher aspects of
life. Some historians believe that Humperdinck and his sister
Adelheid had not read Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” as kids
themselves, but a bowdlerized version by Ludwig Bechstein.
Bechstein, and later Humperdinck, Christianized the tale. In
fact, one of the most famous sections of the opera is the children’s
Evening Prayer at the end of Act II. But that wasn’t their only
alteration to the Grimms’ text. As a foster child himself, Bechstein
detested the cliché of the “evil stepparent.” Whereas
the Grimms gave Hansel and Gretel a stepmother,
perhaps to lessen the horror of her decision to abandon
two defenseless children in the forest, Bechstein (and
Humperdinck) gave them a biological mother instead,
who is harried and desperate but not heartless. The
witch metamorphosed as well. The Grimms described
her as animalistic, with red eyes and a keen sense of
smell; they wrote, “as soon as she had any children
in her power, she would kill, cook, and eat them.”
Bechstein recreated the witch as a bumbling, almost
comical villain “with a big, big nose” and “grass green
eyes,” and Adelheid Wette’s libretto subdues the witch’s
cannibalism further by transforming victims and witch
alike into giant gingerbread cookies.
What of fairy tales today? They’re still around, of
course. The Brothers Grimm provided the foundation
for that American icon, the Disney castle. With Disney
came another round of sanitizing the tales. Fairy
tale scholar Jack Zipes has called Walt Disney “that
twentieth-century sanitation man.” But although the
violence has been expunged from the tales, many
are still critical of the messages the Disney versions
may impart. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy
Orenstein critiques the phenomenon of the über
girlie“princess culture.” Orenstein found that while
boys at her daughter’s preschool imagined themselves
as everything from animals to insects and snack foods
to superheroes, girls were uniformly princesses, fairies,
butterflies, or ballerinas. Orenstein also points out that
in recent years, childhood stages we take for granted
like toddler and tween have been put forward by
marketers rather than doctors or child specialists.
The question of what kind of material is appropriate for children still sparks heated debate among
scholars and parents alike. Some believe children should be sheltered, while others see no harm in
allowing children to encounter stories that contain violent or sexual content. In 1976 a psychologist
named Bruno Bettelheim controversially argued that classic fairy tales, even those with frightening or
violent scenes, teach children how to handle the central fears and challenges in their lives.
Today, fairy tales seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance; perhaps they’re coming full circle,
finding an audience with adults as well as children. Episodes of the ABC show Once Upon a Time
allude to not only the original tales, but also their cinematic Disney adaptations; NBC’s Grimm is a
police procedural that imagines the Grimms’ villains come to life; Shrek’s irreverent mash-up of fairy tale
characters and plots made it a critical and box office success and spawned a franchise popular with all
ages. The Grimms collected stories that were part of a rich oral tradition; Humperdinck and
others brought them to life for subsequent generations. We’re a part of that
tradition as we revisit and revise these stories.
Each time we enjoy them, we connect with our
own history, and the ways these classic tales
change with the times can teach us about
q Classic fairy tales such as “Hansel and Gretel” have been retold
in our culture in sanitized versions. The original versions were
often explicitly violent or sexual, leading some to argue that they
are inappropriate for children. Others claim that the sanitized
adaptations lose important moral messages found in the originals.
Write an essay in which you discuss whether or not original
Opinions differ on what exactly
makes a fairy tale a fairy tale.
Generally, they are folkloric stories
involving magical characters
and events. Some come from
oral traditions, others from literary
sources. The term itself comes from
the French conte de fées, coined
by the Countess d’Aulnoy, a 17 th
century Parisian salonnière whose
stories were definitely not intended
for children. Another French author
and big name in fairy tales, Charles
Perrault, writing around the same
time as d’Aulnoy, helped lay the
foundations for the genre with
works derived from pre-existing folk
tales, including “Little Red Riding
Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Puss in
Boots.” Many of Perrault’s stories
were rewritten a hundred years
later by the Brothers Grimm, and
adaptations for theater, ballet,
opera, and later film began to
appear within a few years of
their publication and into the 20 th
versions of fairy tales should be retained and told to young
children. Hold a classroom debate on the same topic.
q Do you agree that childhood is a “social construction?” Why or
q How are children seen today? What are your personal views on
the hunger games
notes on lyric opera’s production
Hansel and Gretel is about hunger. At least that’s what this particular
production aims to convey. Each time a classic work is produced, the director
and design team make decisions about what thematic elements to bring to
the fore. Humperdinck opted for a kinder, gentler Hansel and Gretel, but
over the years, opera directors (a bloodthirsty lot, perhaps?) have put some
of the Grimm and the grim back in. British director Richard Jones has gone
that route with this dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish production created for
the Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Scenic designer John
Macfarlane’s vivid sets are just one of the elements that combine to realize
Jones’ vision of hunger and its dreadful power.
Food, eating, and hunger take center stage in this production, with all three
acts set in kitchens or dining rooms. Act I takes place in the family’s drab
kitchen—peeling walls, an ancient refrigerator, and a rickety table. The dark
forest of Act II is reimagined as a cavernous dining room with leafy wallpaper
and an enormous table that dwarfs the starving children. Fourteen chefs
resembling grotesque, oversized babies with bulbous heads replace the
fourteen angels from the Evening Prayer. Led by a fish-headed maître d’, they
serve the desperate and dazed children the banquet of their dreams. Act III is
set in the witch’s kitchen—cinderblock walls, industrial-size appliances, and
of course, the menacing maw of the massive oven.
q Describe the set and costume choices you would make as the
director of Hansel and Gretel.
What themes in the story would your design choices highlight?
The scrims that descend between acts and set changes continue the hunger
motif as well as the grotesque, disorienting imagery. The initial image depicts
a place set with knife, fork, and huge dinner plate. The plate changes as the
show progesses, becoming smeared with food (or blood) and finally cracking.
The great art of opera arose a little over four hundred years
ago. The simplest definition of opera is that it’s a story told through song
and action. It’s a unique blend of every art form there is: drama, movement,
literature, sculpture, painting, design—and especially music, the number one
An opera’s music is always inspired and informed by what’s happening in the
story. The thing that makes opera so effective is the way the music and the
story are woven together by the composer.
Even though it’s got a happy ending, “Hansel and Gretel” is a horrible story.
The way Humperdinck felt about the tale – and the joy and innocence of
childhood – influenced every note of the opera. You will hear several places
where he wrote childish-sounding music for Hansel and Gretel: they begin
the opera singing a nursery rhyme, and the dance duet that follows is another
naïve tune. Humperdinck used the simple children’s music to show Hansel
and Gretel’s youth and lack of experience with the serious, life-and-death
matters that their parents worry about.
When the children’s mother comes home, it’s another story: the music gets
much more serious, especially once she’s alone and sings about the desperate
situation the family is in. The happy song the father sings on his way home
reveals a lot about his optimistic personality, but notice how the music
changes for his terrifying story of the hungry witch. It really gets dramatic!
Between Acts I and II is a stretch of orchestral music that picks up the witch
idea and takes it even further using no words at all. The main musical theme
(melody) is a foreshadowing of the jolly aria the witch herself will sing after
she’s captured the children in Act III. The cheerful mood of that aria makes her
seem even more twisted; eating children must make her very happy.
But of all the
music in the
most powerful is
definitely the prayer
Hansel and Gretel
sing just before
they fall asleep
in the forest at
the end of Act II. The profound beauty of the
music is heightened by the fact that it’s sung
by two lost, hungry, frightened children in
real danger. Once the children are asleep, the
prayer music continues and builds to a climax
in a long section of orchestral music. In Lyric’s
production the children have an amazing and
bizarre dream that’s played out right onstage—
wait ‘til you see it!
Hansel and Gretel’s prayer is by far the biggest
“hit” of the opera and could be considered
the musical backbone of the whole work.
You’ll hear the prayer theme—or at least parts
of it—at many points, even before Hansel and
Gretel actually sing it. In fact, it’s the opera’s
very first notes. Hansel and Gretel begins with
a prelude in which the orchestra plays several
of the melodies you’ll hear again later: the
witch’s magic spell theme, music from Hansel
and Gretel’s initial encounter with the witch,
the Dew Fairy’s music, and the triumphal march
of the revived gingerbread children. But most of the
music of the prelude is based on the famous prayer
theme, which, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear in at
least three different places in the eight-minute piece.
So by the time Hansel and Gretel sing the prayer for
real at the end of Act Two, it’ll probably already sound
familiar. It’s another masterstroke by Humperdinck:
a familiar song has a stronger effect on you than one
you’ve never heard before, doesn’t it? As a final touch,
the prayer music returns once more for the happy
ending of the opera, and it’s sung full force by the
entire cast—minus the witch, of course!
Thanks to brilliantly creative crafting of the music,
Humperdinck found ways to bring out the complexity
and emotion of what seems a simple children’s story.
When you come to see for yourself, we hope you’ll
listen closely and notice how much extra meaning the
music gives to every aspect of this classic fairy tale.
That’s what opera is all about!
q Choose a movie, musical, or opera. Describe how the music and
the story are woven together to create a complete work of art.
Can the music and the story be performed independently of
each other? How would that impact the experience an audience
member has during the performance?
q Create your own playlist. Put together a playlist of songs based on
emotion in your life.
What song would play if you were happy, sad, in love, tired, etc.
Explain your choices. How are children seen today? What are your
personal views on childhood?
Pretty Bad Things, C.J. Skuse
This young adult novel was inspired by the tale of Hansel and Gretel, and
there are many nods to it throughout the book. The main characters are
abandoned by their parents as children. They have a witch-like grandmother,
and there is a media ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ (the crimes the teen protagonists
The Poets’ Grimm: 20 th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales, Jeanne Marie
Beaumont and Claudia Carlson, eds.
If you care to revisit those dark Germanic woods and re-experience the
traumas of your first exposure to stories, you could hardly wish for better
guides than the poets gathered in the cottage of this anthology. Cinderella,
Rapunzel, Snow White—they’re all here, dusted off and freshened through
revision. The Poets’ Grimm welcomes you back to childhood with a sly
– Billy Collins
An annotated version of the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” and loads of other
fairy tale info.
“I’m in a State of Bliss,” Mike Ashman, The Guardian
Interesting article on Engelbert Humperdinck.
“Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?” Libby Copeland, Slate.com
Copeland argues the classic versions are too violent, and the Disney stories
have bad values.