It’s been a long-standing theatre resolution for me to have “a night at the opera” (first in 2016, now carried over to this year); though I’d intended on this being at an opera house, I don’t think I could’ve had a better introduction to a live opera experience than the one I finally had last week. Pop-Up Opera visit a huge amount of diverse venues each year, tailoring their performances to wherever they end up that night. This year’s production is Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, a 19th century version of the classic Grimm brothers fairy tale (libretto by Adelheid Wette).
Siblings Hansel and Gretel are at home – they’re supposed to be working, but soon become bored and distracted by hunger. When their mother returns to find them idling away their time, she gets angry and accidentally knocks over the milk jug, breaking it and spilling the only sustenance in the house. She sends her children into the forest to forage for some berries, though not long after this her husband (their father) returns with a whole range of food for his family. When he discovers where his wife has sent Hansel and Gretel he panics, as he knows of a witch that lives in the forest – she lures children to her house using sweet treats, pushes them into her oven to turn them into gingerbread, and then eats them. Mother and father set off into the forest themselves, but will they find their children in time?
Though it has the same story at its core, the opera differs from the widely known fairy story in certain details. For one thing, there is a significant religious influence – 14 angels appear in order to protect the children as they sleep, and the opera concludes with this message: “When the need is greatest, God the Lord puts out His hand.” It’s also transformed into a slightly more loving family unit, rather than the evil stepmother convincing her husband to abandon the children in the woods. Presumably this was to satisfy the slightly more conservative, family-orientated views of the German audiences they were writing for.
It really is a unique experience with Pop-Up Opera. The performance I attended was at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green; you can’t get much more appropriate than that! Surrounded by clothes, dolls’ houses and other toys, you get the sense that you’re entering Hansel and Gretel’s world – albeit a slightly more updated one than the German original.
What is also brilliant is their version of surtitles – more akin to silent film captions than anything, they neatly summarise what has been said (or, rather, sung) in a humorous and slightly irreverent way. While there are obviously benefits of translating every single line, mostly what’s needed is the gist as you can work out some things from the performers’ actions and the props employed. They also very sensibly have two screens for the captions, so it’s easy to read them and watch at the same time.
The cast of five, vibrantly accompanied by MD Berrak Dyer on piano, certainly know how to bring a modern retelling of an old story to life. Though it is a modern setting, it is tinted with traces of the past and sprinkled with fairy dew. Rebecca Moon is quirky and cute as the Sandman & Dew Fairy, popping up intermittently with great enthusiasm. James Harrison is very funny as the inebriated father (Peter) returning home from work, and Ailsa Mainwaring combines the roles of mother (Gertrud) and Witch expertly – and with great voice. Polly Leech and Sofia Larsson combine well as the brother/sister team of Hansel and Gretel, with excellent vocals as well as bringing some terrific physical comedy to the table.
My verdict? A perfect introduction to the world of opera, and lots of fun for all ages – an experience that shouldn’t be missed!
Hansel and Gretel was at the V&A Museum of Childhood on 10 October 2017 and is on tour until 19 November 2017. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website.