The Greatness of Hansel and Gretel

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 21 December 2015.]


Hänsel und Gretel; Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907)

A young mother wanted to sing to her children. She wrote poems based on a story by the Brothers Grimm and asked her brother to set them to music. He did, but then kept working with them, and in two years those songs turned into Hansel and Gretel.

The 1893 fairy-tale opera by Engelbert Humperdinck was a hit at its premiere. It immediately swept from Germany through Europe, and into England and the United States. Its popularity has never wavered.

Hansel and Gretel premiered on a December 23rd, and although Christmas doesn’t appear in the opera, Christmas-time most often sees performances of this. It’s a morality tale and a witch story, but it’s really about two things: children and great tunes.

The music ranges from flighty to folksy to scary to heart-rending, but it’s all brilliant, all colorful, and all deeply emotional. Humperdinck shatters the idea of children’s entertainment as, well, childish, and the idea that serious art has to be oh-so-serious.

Hansel and Gretel completely engages everyone. If artistic greatness is measured as emotional reach across people and countries and centuries—and age groups—then here’s a vote that one of the greatest of all operas has to be Hansel and Gretel.


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