Students belt it out in opera

‘Hansel & Gretel’ features CU, elementary school pupils

Corey A. Cass/University of Colorado Boulder

If you follow University of Colorado Boulder Opera, you’ve seen it before. But on the other hand, it won’t be the same, either.

It’s Hansel & Gretel by the German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (the original Engelbert Humperdinck, not the English pop-schlock singer), the spring production of the CU Opera Theater, with performances in Macky Auditorium March 14-16 (Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

In many ways, the production is the same one mounted by CU in 2006. After those performances, the CU College of Music kept the sets and costumes, which they will use again. But in some ways, it will be a new production. “There are some things that are different,” Leigh Holman, CU director of opera, explains. “In addition to the principal singers, we have between 50 and 60 schoolchildren singing the final chorus, and we’re staging the full ballet, during the dream pantomime scene. That’s gong to be a ballet with ballet students as the 14 angels.”

The school chil dren come from Black Rock Elementary in Erie, with 10 more from Boulder. The angels are students from CU and Longmont Dance Theatre Academy. The performances, directed by Holman with the CU orchestra under music director Nicholas Carthy, will be sung in German with English titles projected above the stage.

Hansel & Gretel is a fairytale opera, with lots of magic and a flying witch, but Holman wants people to know that the opera is not quite the dark and scary tale that they may know from the brothers Grimm.

“The mother isn’t leaving them out in the woods to die,” Holman explains. “They go out to pick strawberries and just get lost. [The witch] is more of a comic character, and the little boy and girl are the heroes. They not only save themselves, they save all of those children that were going to be eaten by the witch. It’s really a wonderful, happy ending.”

Even when they are lost, it’s not all that frightening, she says.

“They say their prayers and angels come [to watch over them], so we feel pretty safe by the time they go to sleep,” Holman says.

She notes the university saved the sets last time around because they were sure they would reuse them. Hansel & Gretel is a popular production for opera departments.

One reason it’s a particularly appealing opera to produce is that the fairytale story is one that almost everyone knows and can relate to. Another one is the lush music in Humperdinck’s score.

“The orchestral music is very Wagnerian,” Holman says. “It’s sweeping, with broad lines and great melodies. It’s really strong and wonderful.”

A final reason is that the opera has so many great female roles.

“That’s really valuable for a university because we have so many female singers,” Holman says.

“Hansel and Gretel are both played by females, and the sandman, the dew fairy, the witch and the mother are all female roles.”

The role of the boy Hansel is a particularly juicy role for a young mezzo. Holman knows this first-hand — she used to perform the role as a singer. There’s no role that has meant as much to her as that one, she says “It’s a whole lot of fun. Hansel’s jumping up on furniture and dancing and falling down and doing all kinds of stuff like that,” she says.

“We’ve staged the sword fight with brooms in the first act, so the two Hansels that are double cast are just jumping all over the place. They really enjoy it.”

The fight happens pretty fast onstage, but it takes a lot of rehearsal to make it look natural — and be safe for the singers.

“All the parries they do with each other are numbered, so it’s choreographed by numbers,” Holman explains.

“We have fight call every night before rehearsal, so they can rehearse the swordfight.”

Holman’s experience singing the part of Hansel has led to another aspect of her staging. “Every director likes to have a point of view,” she says. “My idea is that the whole story is told through the viewpoint of Hansel himself. So even in the dream ballet, he imagines that he is one of the angels.

“And so for instance one of the little boy dancers is wearing a white outfit like Hansel’s. That’s in Hansel’s dream — he imagines himself being one of the 14 angels, but also being taken care of by the other 13. I would say it’s a psychological concept, but it’s not thrown in the audience’s face.”

But in the end, Holman says Hansel & Gretel is just plain fun for all. “It’s almost like Harry Potter goes to the opera!”