“If you think of Hansel and Gretel as gumdrops and gingerbread, you might have difficulty wrapping your head around this production,” says stage director Eric Einhorn. “Psychologically, it treads a sharp edge.”
New Jersey–based Einhorn makes his Lyric Opera directorial debut with a revival production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera, based on the Brothers Grimm tale of two siblings with big appetites who confront a cannibalistic witch in the woods. The original production, a co-commission by Lyric Opera and Welsh National Opera, is the creation of British theater and opera director Richard Jones and was last seen on Lyric’s stage in 2002.
“Richard’s M.O. with this whole thing was for the production to be a meditation on hunger and excess, and how we behave when confronted with those extremes,” Einhorn explains as he kicks back in his dressing room post-rehearsal. “There’s a lot of pent-up, angular German Expressionist physicality in this production. It’s very close to the Grimm version in its darkness.”
Humperdinck’s most popular opera is a personal favorite of Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud, whose parents took him to see a production at Sadler’s Wells in London at the age of five. “Being so young, I don’t remember much—but I do remember the enormous explosion of the oven at the end, when the witch blows up,” he reminisces via telephone. “For some reason it’s always remained one of my favorite operas. I find it very compelling and haunting, as well as entertaining.”
Two former members of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center program have been drafted to play the roles of preteen scamps Hansel and Gretel: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong (Hansel) and soprano Maria Kanyova (Gretel). “We’re bridging the gap between wanting to be an adult but always falling back and being a child,” notes DeShong, whose first professional opera gig was playing a younger Hansel at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England in 2008.
“I always try to channel my rough-and-tumble younger brothers when I play this role,” she says with a laugh as she takes a seat outside the rehearsal room after wrapping up a superbly sung scene from Act II. “I like the wild abandonment that some boys tend to have at that age.” DeShong, who plans to donate her long blond locks to a children’s charity prior to opening night, admits that portraying a kid brings plenty of challenges. “You have to have a balance of color to keep the youth, but still retain the vocal heft and capability to cut through the heavy, Wagnerian textures of the orchestra.”
Jones’s brilliantly imagined, beautifully grotesque vision features fish-headed waiters, a painted backdrop of a cavernous mouth, pudding-faced chefs and a huge, riotous food fight. “It’s spooky in places but really sparks children’s imaginations,” says Freud.
Despite the opera’s dark undercurrents, Einhorn agrees that kids adore Jones’s striking Hansel and Gretel. He took his five-year-old daughter to see the Met’s runaway hit revival of the same production last year, which he also directed. “She absolutely loved it,” he says. “As with anything—whether it’s violence, sex or dark themes—we, as the adults, tend to put our own anxiety onto the situation. Children don’t comprehend the depth of what the witch means. The kids just see an old lady giving away sweets.”
Hansel and Gretel runs Friday 7 through January 19 at Lyric Opera.