Two singers from the San Diego Young Artists
Opera Program performing a piece
from the opera of "Hansel & Gretel"
On January 14th I had the wonderful opportunity to see Dr. Joseph Thomas and Dr. Nicolas Reveles’ lively discussion, “Hansel & Gretel: Fairy Tale to Opera” as part of San Diego Opera’s 65th year of the “Taste of Opera” series. Thomas and Reveles discussed the roots of Hansel and Gretel, both the Grimm Brothers’ version and the story in the Humperdinck opera. They explored the dark undertones of the story and how it turned into the (somewhat less dark) story it is known as today. Two talented singers from the San Diego Young Artists Opera Program performed a piece from the opera.
As Reveles beautifully puts it, Humperdinck perfectly illustrates children left to their own devices, without the scrutiny of parents, as seen by the two singers bickering with one another as they dance around the stage. This can be seen with Hansel and Gretel joyously skipping around the stage and fighting over who should do the laundry.
Nicolas Reveles playing a piano
piece from the Hansel & Gretel Opera
I don’t know much about operas, but I know a bit about the Grimm Brothers, so I was excited. The original opera was written in the nineteenth century by composer Engelbert Humperdinck, based on the Grimm brothers’ popular fairy tale.
The origins of “Hansel and Gretel” are a bit unclear, but Thomas says estimates lie around 1315, the time of the Great Famine in Europe. During this time there were many historic tales of cannibalism and child abandonment, two ideas present in the story of Hansel and Gretel. This popular tale may have been inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Hop o’ My Thumb.
Nicolas Reveles and Joseph Thomas
In the time of Grimm’s tales, it was not uncommon for many children to be abandoned due to lack of food, so Hansel and Gretel’s tale, at least the first part of the tale, is not as far-fetched as it may seem to modern audiences.
Although fairy tales are modernly associated with children, according to Reveles, fairy tales were originally written as a historical and theoretical study for adults. Grimm’s tales were a very new concept, as the common idea of literature was the it should come from Greek and Roman tales, an idea popularized by King Louis XIV. This was known as “The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns”.
Although Grimm’s first edition highlighted a motif of child abandonment, this didn’t sit well with audiences, so the mother was edited as a step-mother, and as Dr. Thomas states, editors argued that “a German mother would never do that [abandon her children]”. I am curious if this started the tradition of stepmothers that we see in many Disney movies and the fairy tales they were inspired by.
Hansel and Gretel has some interesting themes. For one, the natural world, or the woods Hansel and Gretel enter, is a world of mysticality, poetry, and fairy tales, perhaps as an escape from the restrictive world the two live in at their own home. These stories had many educational themes throughout which may not have been as obvious being a modern reader.
This was truly such a fun talk and I learned so much.