activities - Lyric Opera of Chicago

activities - Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s


Hansel and Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck



A Selected Cultural and Historical Timeline





Notes on Lyric Opera’s Production



Please use the following Key for the curricular connections

within each article:

English Social Science/History Music



Lyric Opera of Chicago gratefully acknowledges the

2012/13 Students at the Opera sponsors

Lead Sponsor: Dr. Scholl Foundation



John and Rosemary Brown

General Mills Foundation

The Gerda Lissner Foundation

Wade D. and Claudia E. Miquelon

Linda K. and Dennis M. Myers

Carol Prins and John Hart

Segal Family Foundation

Bill and Orli Staley Foundation

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

from Spain.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

premieres in Vienna.

Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce takes the

world’s first photograph.

Slavery abolished in the

British Empire.

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

mathematician, philosopher,

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

Wette’s libretto.

Physician Crawford Long uses

anesthetic for the first time to

remove a tumor from a patient

in Georgia.

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

abolitionist newspaper

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

literary history.

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

in Wonderland.

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

in damage.

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

years later.

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

West Side.

Adolf Hitler born in what is

now Austria.


On Christmas Day, Hansel and

Gretel is the first complete

Metropolitan Opera radio

broadcast performance.

1889 1893 1895 1921 1931 1965


New Zealand becomes first country

in the world to grant women the right

to vote.

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.


an annotated


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


Gingerbread children

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.

2 HOOM-purr-dink

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

sea level.



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

one-hit wonder

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

Humperdinck wrote,

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,

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

fan favorite?

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?



fairy tales

and childhood

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

why not?

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 music

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

opera, 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?

for further



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

modernist twist.

– 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,

Copeland argues the classic versions are too violent, and the Disney stories

have bad values.


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