MSO Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis ranks Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel in his top 5 favourite operas. What is it about this fairy tale classic that keeps both children and adults bewitched the world over?
Though its magical world of dew fairies, gingerbread houses and evil witches is an enchanting one for the youngest music lovers – Hänsel und Gretel is by no means a children’s opera. Humperdinck’s score is Wagnerian in its orchestration and harmonic language, yet employs the simplicity of folk songs. The result is music that is subtle and sophisticated. Hänsel und Gretel was the greatest success of Humperdinck’s career and is still one of the most commonly performed operas in the world today.
A 26-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck first encountered the composer Richard Wagner in 1880; it was a relationship that would hugely impact his life and career. Humperdinck followed Wagner to his creative home, Bayreuth, and spent time working under the giant of Romantic German composition. The enormity of Wagner’s music, his opera house and the man himself proved a little stifling for the fledgling composer, who wouldn’t find his own voice until some years after Wagner’s death.
Just as the first version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was first created as a simple ballet to entertain the composer’s niece and nephew, Hänsel und Gretel began as a pantomime for Humperdinck’s sister’s children. Adelheid Wette asked her brother to compose a few songs for her version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, which she intended for her children to perform at home. The piece evolved into a singspiel (songs and spoken dialogue – as in Mozart’s The Magic Flute) and eventually a full scale opera.
Two of the greatest conductors of the late 19th century would lead its first performances. The 1893 premiere in Weimar was conducted by Richard Strauss and the Hamburg premiere the following year was conducted by Gustav Mahler. Within 12 months, Hänsel und Gretel was staged in 50 German theatres. Cosima Wagner (Franz Liszt’s daughter and Richard Wagner’s wife) directed a version in Dessau and composers Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf were in the audience for the Vienna premiere. Everywhere it went, Hänsel und Gretel was hailed a triumph. Its massive popularity would be recreated in the United States, where Hansel and Gretel was the first complete Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, on Christmas Day in 1931.
It’s a masterpiece unlike anything in the entire opera canon. A perfect fusion of unpretentious melodies and lush orchestral textures, with a story centred on the rite of passage from child to young adult – Hänsel und Gretel is opera at its poignant, intelligent, accessible best. No wonder it’s one of Sir Andrew’s favourites.