Hansel and Gretel
By Engelbert Humperdinck (sung in English)
Presented by Opera Theatre of Montclair
Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22, 23, 29, 30, 4 p.m.
Central Presbyterian Church, 46 Park St.
By GWEN OREL
One witch has a green wig and a creepy air.
The other is jolly, with lipstick not quite on his lips (this witch is played by a man in drag), a happy grandma everybody loves, except that when she’s hungry, she might eat you.
Each actor in Opera Theatre of Montclair’s (OTM) production of “Hansel and Gretel” has been encouraged to find their inner witch.
Both portrayals are consistent with the story, said Stage Director Stacey Canterbury,
who also plays The Gingerbread Witch with green hair in Cast A.
Tai Collins plays The Gingerbread Witch in Cast B.
Humperdinck’s opera is not a children’s story per se — adults play the major roles — but children will enjoy it, said OTM’s General Director Mia Riker-Norrie.
“We had a table in a sidewalk sale and people ask, ‘Are there adult singers?’
“Yes, this is a fully professional production, with kids in it. It’s very sophisticated music, but because of the theme, it’s appropriate to bring children to it,” said Riker-Norrie.
Actually, there are quite a few children in the production, more than 20, who play Gingerbread Children the witch has enchanted to make up the walls of her house, and who dance in the ballet. Christine Rauschenbach-Nevill, who plays The Sandman in Cast B, is one of the child wranglers.
At one point Riker-Norrie considered having the production allude to current events, with children in cages on the border and a witch with a blonde combover, but in the end decided to allow the audience to draw its own parallels.
This production, with its vivid colors and magical moments, is a “relief and a release” from the news, she said.
Being separated from a parent is a primal fear, and many fairy tales draw on it, Riker-Norrie said.
The production came together with just a few weeks of rehearsal. Central Presbyterian Church is used by Bnai Keshet for the high holidays, so OTM has had to work around that as well.
As is usual for opera, there are two casts, so that singers can rest their voices in between productions.
Though most people know the story of Hansel and Gretel and the witch, the opera adds a few touches specific to Humperdinck: the mother doesn’t kick out the children because they are starving, but loses her temper and immediately feels remorseful. She and the father go to look for them. The imprisoned children, as well as a corps de ballet of children-angels who watch over Hansel and Gretel, are new. So are The Sandman, who puts the siblings to sleep, and the Dew Fairy, who wakes them up.
Humperdinck wrote a lot of the staging into the score, even some of the specific steps of the witch’s dance, Climie said.
Allyson Carvajal, the mother in Cast B, said the music itself has a lot of German traditions. “I hear a lot of influences, some Mahler,” she said.
Collins agreed that the music is tricky. While his approach to the witch is comical, he decided to eschew vulgar rewritings of the lyrics to keep his witch a lovable ghoul. Having the witch played by a man has been common for about 40 years, he said.
In some productions, there are parallels between the mother and the witch, sometimes even played by the same performer.
But, Carvajal said, there is a scene with the mother praying desperately. If you take the parallel too far, “it loses the humanity that comes in that aria,” she said.
“The kids are happy when they see their mother and father at the end of the show, not going ‘I might want to stay in the woods,’” Climie said with a laugh.
If losing family is a primal fear, finding them again will bring about a sense of wonder and relief, Riker-Norrie said.
The score is beautiful, with harp, tympani and brass; there will be a 22-piece orchestra accompanying OTM.
“It’s uplifting,” she said. “When you see the angels watching over these children, who are abandoned in the wood, holy cow! It just hits you.
“We’re going traditional, and it’s just beautiful.”