Hänsel und Gretel
Text: Adelheid Wette (1858 – 1916) and Hermann Wette (1857 – 1919),
with modern spells by Tina Breckwoldt and Rebecca Scheiner
Music: Engelbert Humperdinck (1854 - 1921)
Director: Rebecca Scheiner
Production and costume design: Uta Knittel and Angelika Höckner
Costumes: Daniela Goiser
Humperdinck studied music in Cologne and Munich, against his father’s wishes who felt that his son would not be able to earn a living as a musician. Ultimately Humperdinck proved his father wrong. He worked with Wagner at Bayreuth in 1881-2, assisting him with the score of Parsifal. Wagner’s influence on Humperdinck is evident in Hänsel und Gretel, Humperdinck’s most famous work, written between 1890 and 1893. Richard Strauß conducted the world premiere of “Hänsel und Gretel” in Weimar in 1893. There is a Singspiel version, which combines arrangements of simple German folk songs with spoken dialogue, and a later opera version. The Vienna Boys' Choir performs the shortened Singspiel version.
The libretto by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette (with contributions by her husband) is based on the well-known tale of Hänsel and Gretel, published and retold in 1815 by the brothers Grimm and therefore very much present in contemporary German popular culture. Wette’s libretto, however, is based on Ludwig Bechstein’s 1845 account of the tale. Bechstein, who himself had been brought up by a stepmother, shied away from the image of an adult sending children into the woods for sadistic reasons and changed the evil stepmother into a mother who is forced to do this against her will. Still, one would hope there were other solutions.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir’s whirlwind production is by the young German Rebecca Scheiner, an up-and-coming stage director and evening supervisor at the Vienna State Opera. Scheiner has transformed the choir into a fairy tale forest where anything is possible. Trees jump (they even lash out on occasion), and bushes move around. “The Choir mostly performs in concert halls, not in theatres, so a production must use simple means, and it has to be extremely flexible to work on different stages.” Scheiner achieves this by turning the choristers into living scenery, into trees, wallpaper and furniture. “Two boys are a table, and as the table must collapse in one scene, we had to have special table collapsing rehearsals.”
Scheiner’s stage is constantly on the move: a house transforms into a forest, dense forest thins into a clearing, trees shed their leaves and make way for children. All changes happen on stage, right in front of the audience: true theatre magic. The young stage director replaced Wette’s original rhymed dialogue with a funny modern text, dotted with clever wit, in keeping with her staging. In her version, dad sells mops, not brooms, and mum sends the kids away out of sheer frustration: they have spilt the milk, the family’s only food for the day, and she wants them out of the way for an hour to give her time to mope, then mop. No use crying over spilt milk.
For Rebecca Scheiner, it is most important that her actors are always busy and true to character on stage. Even a bush has to have a bush expression. “We rehearsed at the choir’s summer camp, which is in the middle of a forest – a perfect setting for a production of Hänsel und Gretel.” Some of the props come from there, such as the bird’s bone that Hänsel uses to fool the witch. The young German is proud of “her” boys: “They realize what you tell them. On stage they become Hänsel, Gretel, or the witch.” Scheiner, who also stages musicals, stripped Humperdinck of kitsch without destroying the magic. “I wanted the boys to have fun on stage”, she says, “and I wanted children in the audience to identify with the characters. Hänsel and Gretel are modern children who chase each other around the trees and who tease each other but who basically have to rely on each other in a dangerous situation.”
What about the witch? The witch is a shining example of an academic diva with aspirations of winning a Nobel prize for genetically engineered gingerbread. Like many academics, the good Dr. Hybread (she holds a PhD from Trinity College Dublin, no less) is frustrated and even thwarted by unwilling equipment. She does have a way with words, however, and all of her zany spells rhyme: “Hocus pocus, utter rot / fools! You’re rooted to the spot!”
Of course, Hänsel and Gretel get to dance: at the beginning, Gretel instructs her brother in hip hop. At the end, Scheiner has her entire cast dancing in a chorus line, hip hop and salsa, including – of course - the academic witch.
The colourful costumes are by Uta Knittel and Angelika Höckner; both have worked for the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival. They are especially proud of their trees, which were dyed, washed, dyed again and sprayed for final bark effects.