Friday, February 27, 2009

Blog #11, Hansel and Gretel and the Ives Vocal Marathon

It’s hard to believe that I have not posted a new blog on this site
in two and a half years! Tempus fugit. The Ives Vocal Marathon
simply took over my life. That event has its own website, and its
own blog (with a number of interesting responses). Check it out at:

But it is time to get back to writing about my own music and my own
activities. What has prompted me to resume blogging here at at this particular time is the upcoming
production of my opera Hansel and Gretel at my alma mater,
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This is a singular
honor, and I am delighted to be returning to Urbana on such a
festive occasion. Thanks, Opera Program! Thanks, School of Music!

This will be the third production of this work, and in the future I
will write about the other two. But for now, here are the
performance dates: April 30 and May 1, 2, 3, 2009. For details about
starting time, ticket prices, etc., go to:

Here are some notes I have written about the piece, including the
cast of characters, the orchestra, and some details about the first
production. These are tweaked versions of material that can be found in the vocal score and program notes from the earlier productions.



In 1996 Connecticut Opera commissioned me to write a new opera on
the subject of Hansel and Gretel, surely the most famous children
ever lost in the woods. I have known and loved the story all my
life, and one of my earliest memories of opera is seeing the famous
Humperdinck piece on the screen when I was about ten years old. The
film showed at a theatre that no longer exists in Birmingham,
Alabama; it featured films like The Red Shoes, the re-release of
Fantasia, and Stravinsky’s chamber opera The Nightingale, which,
like Hansel and Gretel, was done with puppets. The look of that film
has stayed with me ever since, and I have carried the music around
in my mind as well. At the age of seventeen I wrote a short set of
variations for piano on the folk song with which Humperdinck opens
his show, “Suzy, little Suzy.”

Composing my own opera on this subject would never have occurred to me. George Osborne proposed it, and I agreed to write it on the spot. Friends asked me how this piece would differ from the one which already existed. I imagined several ways, prompted by Osborne’s vision of “a new Hansel and Gretel with American pop music.” First, the Humperdinck is, in spite of its subject matter, Wagnerian in scope, with expansive music for large orchestra and lots of special theatrical effects. My piece would be streamlined, and would exist in two versions. The first would have a small cast and could be done with piano or a small number of instruments; this Hansel and Gretel has been done dozens of times in schools and other venues appropriate for Opera Express, the touring wing of Connecticut Opera. The second and complete version is represented by this vocal score; it has a somewhat larger cast, chorus, dancers, and an orchestra, albeit not a large, Wagnerian one. Incidentally, the role of Hansel, a mezzo-soprano in Humperdinck, is be sung by a tenor. The trousers role convention seems no longer useful for portraying children on the operatic stage, and boys who can sing demanding roles are quite rare, so my protagonists are a young man and woman, pretending to be fourteen and twelve years old. And they dance a lot.

Second, my opera by design contains many vernacular musical styles, with healthy doses of rock, pop balladry à la Whitney Houston and Harry Connick, Jr., funk, rap, and other genres as they presented themselves to my imagination. Since 1971 when I wrote my opera The Trials of Psyche, which has a rock band on stage throughout the piece, I have written several large-scale works incorporating American popular music, including the song cycle cum musical review Neighbors, the “Piano Rock Album,” and the “rock phantasma-goria” for Electric Phoenix, The Plague. My biggest work, the opera Americana, or, A New Tale of the Genii, has a rock band and a bluegrass band in it. During the twenty-five years I was composing these pieces George Osborne was envisioning a new Hansel and Gretel with a strong pop music element; I’m delighted he chose me to write it.

Finally, I decided to make my opera as faithful to the Brothers Grimm as possible. To prepare myself to write the libretto I read the entire collection of 200-plus tales from cover to cover, and re-read “Hansel and Gretel” about twenty times. Humperdinck makes a lot of changes. The distracted but basically kind mother in his opera is, in the Brothers Grimm, the prototypical wicked stepmother.

The gingerbread children whom Humperdinck’s little heroes save from enchantment are, in the original, tasty meals which exist only in the witch’s memory. And there is much which Humperdinck left out, especially the marvelous duck, ferrying the children across a vast lake. I have added a few touches of my own for the sake of stagecraft — in the last scene the Father has built an observation tower, and the Stepmother’s death occurs on stage. (In the original production this was considered too gruesome and the villainess simply screamed and ran into the woods.) But every episode and most details of the story are there, including the no-longer well-known fact that witches have red eyes, which is why they have such poor

And this old German tale is so much more frightening than all of its sanitized retellings. The version told in the early nineteenth century to the Brothers Grimm touches much more deeply on the anxieties and hopes of children and the mysterious ways in which nature and humans interact. While the first production has demonstrated that my music can entertain and the action is lively, I hope that my opera taken as a whole in some measure approaches the depths of this marvelous and profoundly satisfying story which, in one version or another, has amused and instructed us for so many generations.


The difference in the various vocal styles should be clearly marked; in particular Hansel and Gretel’s rapping should attempt to be as authentic as possible, and since the Witch is a bit of a hick she should sing her waltz song accordingly. I strongly prefer to have a male voice singing in falsetto for the role of the Duck, but so far no one has been willing to do it!

The orchestra parts are virtuosic and should be played as if they were chamber music. This is especially true of the string parts, which are designed for one on a part but do not sound good unless they are approached as if they were a Bartok quartet. Of course if a small section is used (I suggest 4432) a more moderate playing style is appropriate.

The words are crucial in an opera such as this, and to that end George Osborne decided to use body microphones and discretely amplify the singers. This was a total success in Bushnell Memorial Hall, where the first complete production took place, and I recommend it for all performances in large halls. In more intimate spaces it is of course not necessary.

All of the characters dance at one time or another, and dancing is crucial to the plot as well as entertaining. Although Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel do not dance, Humperdinck’s do, and dancing is a completely appropriate activity for bored children trapped in apparently hopeless situations, just as children dance today on the corners of inner-city streets.

Animals play an important part in this story, and the role of animals has been expanded in this opera. The “Ballet of the Beasts” can be cut, of course, but it is great fun for the audience, and can be done on a small scale as well as a large one. The “pretty white cat” is mentioned in the original tale, and it was George Osborne’s inspiration to have the cat become a full-fledged character and dance along with the children.

Details concerning the cuts for the Opera Express version of this work can be obtained from the composer or from the ConnecticutOpera. This version is slightly longer than one hour.

Inquiries concerning future productions of this work, and orders for
copies of this vocal score, may be addressed to

Chamberlain Hill Publications
c/o Neely Bruce
440 Chamberlain Road
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 347-3003


The composer also welcomes inquiries concerning his other operas
(there are three of them, and many more in the works).


HANSEL, a boy of about 14 tenor

GRETEL, a girl of about 12 soprano

their FATHER baritone

their STEPMOTHER soprano

a wicked WITCH mezzo soprano

a messenger BIRD soprano

a DUCK baritone

Chorus of BIRDS treble voices [women or children]

the pretty white CAT dancer (silent)

other dancers as BIRDS, BEARS, WOLVES and ELEPHANTS


Flute (doubling piccolo)

Oboe (doubling English horn)

Clarinet in A (doubling bass clarinet and Eb clarinet)

Bassoon (doubling contrabassoon)

Saxophone One (alto, doubling soprano)

Saxophone Two (tenor, doubling baritone)

Timpani (doubling

Percussion, two players (trap set with 4 toms; large bass drum;

cowbells; vibraphone; marimba; optional other instruments)



Violin (solo or small section)

Viola (solo or small section)

Violoncello (solo or small section)

Double Bass (solo or small section)

NOTA BENE: There is no second violin part.


Opera Express began to perform this work for school children on
March 30, 1997; the first complete performances took place on March
20 and 21, 1998, in Bushnell Memorial Hall, Hartford, Connecticut.
The singers and principal dancers were as follows (the asterisks
indicate the singers at the Bushnell):

HANSEL: Daniel Cafiero* and Timothy Olson*

GRETEL: Teresa Eikel* and Regan Stone

FATHER: Kenneth Overton* and Jason Parkhill

STEPMOTHER: Rebecca Carbino* and Dana Fripp*

WITCH: Jennifer Grum Seiger* and Holly Sorensen

BIRD, DUCK: Jennifer Ayres* and Rebecca Carbino

CAT: Alyssa Alpine* and Merissa Starnes*

Children of the school of the Hartford Ballet were the BIRDS and
other animals of the forest.

Other credits, for both the school performances and at the Bushnell,
were as follows: conceived and directed by George Osborne; conducted
by Robert Ashens; costumes by Margaret Carbonneau; scenery by
Crystal Tiala; choreography by Ambre Emory-Maier; lighting by James
F. Franklin.

The composer would like to thank all of the members of the cast for
their good singing, hard work, and patience with all of the
rewrites. And special thanks go to Robert Ashens, who from the
beginning was a wonderful music director for this piece, coaching
the singers, playing the piano for the school shows, and conducting
the world premiere of the complete work with complete cool control,
under harrowing circumstances! (How else does one premiere an

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