Opera For Beginners

Opera Profile: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel

First premiering at the Hoftheater in Weimar on December 23, 1893, “Hansel and Gretel” was a collaboration between composer Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister, librettist Adelheid Wette. Adapting the libretto from the Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale, the music draws on popular Germanic folk songs and remains a favorite for companies to produce during the Christmas season.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins with Hansel and Gretel working on their chores as they wait for their mother to come home. When Hansel complains about his hunger, Gretel reminds him that God will provide for them when their need is greatest, a lesson given to them by their father. Thinking about the rice pudding their mother will make from a jug of milk given to her by their neighbor, Hansel and Gretel abandon their chores and begin to dance excitedly. When their mother returns, angry that they have not completed their chores, she knocks over the jug of milk. She sends them into the Ilsestein forest, said to be haunted, to look for strawberries to eat. When they leave, their mother laments over the family’s lack of food, praying to God for aid. When their father returns home, he surprises his wife with a pack full of food he has purchased by selling brooms. When he asks where their children are, his wife reveals that she sent them to search for strawberries in the Ilsestein forest. Father is quickly overcome with fear, as the forest is the home of the Gingerbread Witch, who lures children with candy, only to bake them in her oven, turn them to gingerbread, and eat them. The terrified parents run into the forest to save their children.

In the forest, Hansel gathers strawberries as Gretel weaves a flower crown. As night approaches the two have finished eating all of the strawberries they have picked. Realizing that it has become too dark to find the way home, the two children become scared before they are put to sleep by the sudden arrival of The Sandman. As the children rest they dream of angels who keep them safe. When they wake, they happen upon a house entirely made from gingerbread, and are tempted into eating bits of it. As they continue eating the house, they are caught by the Gingerbread Witch; Hansel is put into a cage, and Gretel is forced to dance and set the table. As the witch tries to fatten up Hansel, Gretel steals the wand from pocket, and undoes the spell keeping her brother from moving about freely. When the witch asks Gretel to check on the gingerbread cooking in the oven, Gretel feigns ignorance as to what the witch is asking her to do. When the witch opens the oven to lean in, Hansel and Gretel push her inside, causing the oven to explode. With the witch dead, the gingerbread men around the house turn back into sleeping children as Hansel and Gretel undo the spells cast upon them. Hansel and Gretel’s parents catch up to them soon after and are joyfully reunited with their children. Their father sees the surrounding events as a miracle, and reminds them of God’s mercy to those in need.

Watch and Listen

Here is a performance from the Colorado State University.

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