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A Proms Fairy Tale: Humperdinck's 'Hansel and Gretel'

Nearly two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did the world a lasting favor by assembling, writing down and publishing a collection of classic stories, now known as the Grimm's Fairy Tales. Those stories have done far more than give parents something to read their kids at bedtime -- they've also inspired an astonishing variety of music.

Disney alone came up with numerous animated, musical versions of some of the most famous Grimm's tales: Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev both wrote ballets based on stories from the Grimms' collection -- in Tchaikovsky' s case more than one. And plenty of the Grimms' other tales have inspired music, movies, theater and even TV shows, including Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Princess and the Frog and Hansel and Gretel.

But what about Hansel and Gretel? It's a great story, and it's hardly less famous than any of those others. But when it comes to adaptations, it seems a bit neglected. Why no Disney movie? Why not a Hansel and Gretel ballet or a kids' TV classic? The answer to that seeming neglect might be that there is a Hansel and Gretel opera, and though it was written back in the 1890's, it's a hard act to follow even now.

When the composer Engelbert Humperdinck decided to set a few songs from the Grimm brothers' Hansel and Gretel to music, he probably had little idea how far those melodies would travel. The request had come from the composer's sister, and the songs went over so well that Humperdinck was urged to turn the story into a full-fledged opera. He finished it in 1893, and within a year of its premiere, the opera had been performed in more than 70 theaters. Gustav Mahler led the Hamburg premiere in 1894. A few months later the opera arrived in London, and the American premiere took place in New York in 1895.

Humperdinck had never been a full time musician, and his score for Hansel and Gretel has absorbed a bit of criticism. Some find that its Wagnerian orchestral writing seems at odds with its folk-like melodies and naive charm, and there are moments when is sound a bit like a cross between Das Rheingold and The Merry Widow. But the score's unusual combination of elements also creates a uniquely appealing musical aesthetic that has surely played a big role in making it an all-time favorite. And the opera did wonders for Humperdinck. Within a few years of writing Hansel and Gretel, and with his wallet bulging with royalties, he was able to quit his various day jobs and devote all his time to composing.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Humperdinck's opera in a production from the 2010 Proms Concerts in London, performed at the Royal Albert Hall. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and soprano Lydia Teuscher are Hansel and Gretel, with tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerkacke in an unusual star turn as the Knusperhexe -- the fearsome Nibble Witch of Ilsenstein.

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