This Hänsel und Gretel Isn’t Just For Kids

Opera in the Heights takes on the challenge of staging the great German Romantic opera.

By Michael Hardy

Published Nov 14, 2014, 10:17am

Image: Deji Osinulu Photography

Katie Dixon as Gretel and Hilary Ginther as Hänsel (Emerald Cast)

After one of Opera in the Heights’s performances ofRigoletto in October, one of the audience members came up to Enrique Carreón-Robledo, the company’s Mexican-born artistic director. The man announced that he’d probably skip the company’s next production, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. “I’m a serious opera fan,” he informed the maestro. Carreón-Robledo tried to explain that although Humperdinck’s opera may have been written as a “Märch-enoper,” or fairy tale opera, it wasn’t just for children. In fact, it’s considered one of the masterpieces of 19th-century German Romantic opera.

“I understand that principle, but you have to give it a try, because there are points in the opera that are just magical,” Carreón-Robledo told me. “Yes, it will make you laugh as hard as you’ve ever laughed, but it will also make you cry, believe it or not.”

Carreón-Robledo has always loved German Romanticism—think Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Johann Strauss. The problem is that those composers’ works are typically characterized by an almost megalomanical maximalism, featuring jumbo-size orchestras, large casts, and ambitious staging that puts most of them out of reach for regional opera companies like OH.

Carreón-Robledo knew that the only canonical Romantic opera the company might conceivably be able to mount was Hänsel und Gretel, which premiered in Weimar, Germany in 1893 under the baton of Richard Strauss himself. But the maestro also knew that doing so would require the right director, a director capable of bringing the fantastical opera to life on the cramped stage of Lambert Hall, the OH’s home on Heights Blvd. He finally found that director in Mary Birnbaum, a Julliard professor and well-respected figure in the opera world, who was willing to design a production to meet OH’s strict requirements. Next, he needed an orchestration of the score for the company’s 24-member orchestra. Humperdinck originally scored the opera for anywhere from 75 to 90 musicians, including a massive string section.

Image: Deji Osinulu Photography

Katie Dixon as Gretel, Hilary Ginther as Hänsel, with chorus (children from HITS Theatre)

“This is a very ambitious score,” he said. “It was written at the end of the 19th century, when Romanticism was at its pinnacle, so any composer putting out a new piece wanted to use all the orchestral resources, all the colors, everything the tradition had developed. So it was a big challenge to adjust it to a smaller space and a smaller orchestra.” When Carreón-Robledo stumbled upon Derek Clark’s orchestration for the Scottish Opera, another small company, he couldn’t believe his luck—with a few tweaks, the score was perfect for OH.

The maestro’s luck continued with the cast. He was able to find enough talented singers to double-cast the three principal parts, Hänsel, Gretel, and the Witch. “I think as the company gets more of the good word spread around in the operatic field in the United Sates, the level of talent that wants to come and sing in the company gets higher and higher,” he said. To top everything off, he recruited the children’s chorus from the HITS Theatre, located just a few blocks from Lambert Hall in the Heights.

After four exhausting weeks of rehearsal—the most demanding of any OH production Carreón-Robledo­ has overseen—the maestro said he couldn’t wait to share the opera’s magic with Houston. “It touches an emotional fiber within the musical realm that you will not get when you perform Italian or French opera. It’s very special.”

When Carreón-Robledo first proposed the opera, many doubted that it was possible for a small company like OH to stage such a complex work. But he said he never doubted that they were up to it. “I really felt like we could adapt this opera to work with our resources,” he said. “And I feel that I’ll be proven right with our performance.”