Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel”—happily ever after, with adult moments

San Francisco Opera’s new co-production with London’s Royal Opera of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” features Heidi Stober (L) as Gretel and Sasha Cooke (R) as Hansel. Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

San Francisco Opera (SFO) has officially kicked off the holiday season with it’s wonderfully staged new co-production of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.”  This family-friendly English-language adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ classic tale follows an impoverished brother and sister who get lost in dense woods and come upon an enticing edible house owned by a witch who lures children in and then roasts and eats them.

Beautiful singing from beloved mezzo Heidi Stober (Gretel), soprano Sasha Cooke (Hansel) and talented supporting singers, along with plush romantic-era music from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under conductor Christopher Franklin are all pure delight.  With Ian Robertson directing the members of the SF Opera Chorus and a special children’s chorus comprised of members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus, the experience is both sophisticated and magical.  Running just two hours and 12 minutes, the shortish opera is perfect for families.

Act I of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” features mezzo soprano Michaela Martens as Gertrude, the mother (L), and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father (R). Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

What’s unique about this co-production with London’s Royal Opera House by British director and production designer Antony McDonald, is that the original Brothers Grimm story, published in 1812 in Children’s and Household Tales, has been changed significantly.  Librettist Adelheid Wette, Humperidinck’s sister, wrote her version of Hansel and Gretel in 1983 to appeal to German opera audiences while addressing pressing issues of the day—child labor, callus treatment of children, education and gender roles in the household.  In Act I, Hansel and Gretel work right beside their parents, with little time for childhood frivolity.  In the original Grimms’ tale, the father and stepmother are painted as awful characters who deliberately abandon their children.  Wette turned the stepmother into the actual mother, and she doesn’t die in the end.  Instead of being a woodcutter, the father is a broom-maker, a critique of patriarchal authority.

Antony McDonald has further softened many of harsh aspects of the original tale and added new characters.  The father is not portrayed as a drunk; when the mother sends the children into the forest to forage for strawberries and they do not return home; both parents go to look for them.  Even when they are lost and frightened, the children distract themselves with play.

Act II’s “Dream-Pantomime” scene in SFO’s new co-production of “Hansel and Gretel” includes characters from other Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Photo: Cory Weaver

The addition of new characters may come as a  surprise.  In Act II, a delightful Sandman (mezzo Ashley Dixon, Adler Fellow) appears to lull the lost children to sleep.  As the children say their evening prayers and begin to fall asleep, instead of being attended to by angels, several characters from the other Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales make cameo appearances, including Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Nadreau), the Wolf (Sarah Yune), Prince Charming (Michael Bragg), Snow White (Stacey Chien), Rapunzel (Nina Rocco), Rumpelstiltskin (Kay Thornton), Will-o’-the-wisp (Chiharu Shibata).  As the opera’s final act begins, Hansel and Gretel are awoken at dawn by a Dew Fairy (soprano, Natalie Image, Adler Fellow) who sprinkles them with glistening drops from her water can.

Depending on your preference for adhering to the authentic story, these additions will either delight or annoy you.  Compared to the computer-generated creatures that dominate the screens and kids’ attention nowadays, these furry animals and real human characters add quaint charm.  Antony McDonald is a Royal Designer for Industry, a title he was awarded in the UK honoring his decades of experience designing and directing imaginative productions for opera, theater, and ballet.  Recognizing that “Hansel and Gretel” may be a young child’s first experience of opera, he stated he wanted it to be “visually arresting and engaging, creating a balance of fear and delight.”  He has succeeded.

Robert Brubaker as the witch and Heidi Stober as Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at SFO. Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Still, the opera goes to some very dark places.  With all we know about child molesters who pretend to be something they are not to prey upon innocent children, the gender-changing witch (tenor Robert Brubaker) takes on terrifying connotations.  On the other hand, the addition is relevant and timely.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

This performance reunites powerhouses Cooke and Stober who wowed SFO audiences in June when they co-stared in Handel’s baroque masterpiece, Orlando. ( )

Mezzo Sasha Cooke was fabulous and abuzz with youthful energy in the pants role of Hansel.  She had a huge stage presence and sang a number of duets where her warm voice sparkled.  She harmonized wonderfully with soprano Heidi Stober who delivered an energetic and delightful Gretel and dazzled in her demanding soli and duets.

Heidi Stober as Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Just before last Sunday’s opera began, SFO General director Matthew Shivlock took the stage to announce that mezzo Michaela Martens, cast as Gertrude, the mother, was ill and that first year Adler Fellow, mezzo Mary Evelyn Hangley, would replace her.  Hangley took the ball and ran with it, singing the role with confidence in her surprise SFO debut.  These unexpected moments make live opera so exciting.

Bass baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father, delivered powerful singing and brought requisite intensity to the role, especially when celebrating the boom in broom sales that put food on his impoverished family’s table.  Tenor Robert Brubaker was wonderful as the frightening witch who ultimately is pushed into the oven and roasted.  More sensitive young viewers may react to seeing the witch corpse in Act III.

The opera’s sets masterfully recreate beloved landscapes from storybooks, from the initial show scrim—a blown-up photo of a romantic valley scene, to the quaint cabin kitchen scene, to the ominous wood forest—to the witch’s creepy chocolate house with a huge knife across the roof and a cherry on top.

In Act I and throughout the opera, a large cuckoo clock atop the proscenium has motorized hands which spin round to mark the passage of time.  The actual sound of the cuckoo comes from behind the orchestra pit and is preformed by percussionist Victor Avdienko, playing his custom-made flute-like instrument,“L”Cuckoo,” made out two PVC pipes.  In Act II, a large automated moth and beetle move slowly around the proscenium seemingly encircling the exquisitely shadowed forest, lit by Lucy Carter.

Act III of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” with Heidi Stober as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel features a witch’s house inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho.  Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

In Act III, the banister of the witch’s house that Gretel breaks off is made on the morning of each performance from dark chocolate that is cast in a mold and baked.  The finished piece is dry brushed with white chocolate to resemble wood.  The house itself was inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In all, “Hansel and Gretel” is very satisfying due to its high entertainment factor and family friendly vibe.  If you do attend, come early to watch the mayhem.  There is something wonderfully energizing about seeing the opera house full of happy children scurrying around in a scavenger hunt.

Family Activities:

Gingerbread Hunts: Children with performance tickets are invited to participate in a gingerbread scavenger hunt that starts in the Opera House lobby before every performance.

Character Meet and Greets: Following the performances on Saturday, Nov. 30 and Sunday, Dec. 1, audience members can meet fairy tale characters in the Opera House lobby.

Exploration workshops for families: “All About Hansel and Gretel” workshops, perfect for children ages 6 and above, explore the opera’s story, music, production design and characters. Saturday, Nov. 30 at 11 am and 12:30 pm at the Wilsey Center for Opera, Veterans Building, 4th floor, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets: $10 per person. Purchase online here.


There are five remaining performances of Hansel and Gretel—Sat, Nov. 23, 7:30 pm; Sat, Nov 30, 2 pm; Sunday, Dec 1, 2 pm; Tues, Dec 3, 7:30 pm; and Sat, Dec 7, 7:30 pm. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Tickets: $26 to $398. Admission for children under 18 is available at 50% off with the purchase of one or more adult tickets in certain sections. Info: (415) 864-3330 or

November 22, 2019 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Snow White’s” moment—three films, from 1916, 1937 and 2012, are the ones to see and savor now

Macarena García is Carmen or “Blancanieves” in Spanish director Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves,” a black and white silent film which situates the Snow White story in 1920’s Spain and has Snow White fighting bulls.  Spain’s official 2013 Academy Award entry.

Macarena García is Carmen or “Blancanieves” in Spanish director Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves,” a black and white silent film which situates the Snow White story in 1920’s Spain and has Snow White fighting bulls. Spain’s official 2013 Academy Award entry.

Suddenly, it’s “Snow White’s” moment.  Adaptations of the 19th century Brothers Grimm fairy tale are popping up everywhere, from J. Searle Dawley’s 1916 silent feature “Snow White” to Walt Disney’s 1937 animated classic to Spanish director Pablo Berger’s Oscar-nominated 2012 “Blancanieves.”  There are two Hollywood films—Rupert Sanders’ 2012 action adventure “Snow White and the Huntsman” and Tarsem Singh’s 2012 “Mirror Mirror” with Julia Roberts as the couture-clad queen—and the TV series, “Once Upon a Time” which has a woman with a troubled past in a New England town where fairy tales characters are real.   At its core, the Snow White story is one of transformation.  A motherless and oppressed young girl—with hair as dark as ebony, skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood— defies death and matures into a young woman whose heart of gold is obvious to all.  Her victory requires suffering, a journey into a dark forest, hard work, and a healing kiss.  If you’re a fan of the enchanting story, here are three “Snow White” film events in the Bay Area you’ll want to catch—

Disney Museum’s 75th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney’s 1937 film— Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic, at the Walt Disney Family Museum, San Francisco, through April 14, 2013.   Art exhibition, two new books, daily screenings of “Snow White”

"Snow White Greets a Baby Bird"; Disney Studio Artist; Reproduction cel setup; airbrushed post production background on paper; Walt Disney Animation Research Library; © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

“Snow White Greets a Baby Bird”; Disney Studio Artist; Reproduction cel setup; airbrushed post production background on paper; Walt Disney Animation Research Library; © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Walt Disney’s 1937 animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first full-length animated feature in motion picture history, the first film produced in full color and the first to be produced by Walt Disney Productions.  The Walt Disney Family Museum, at San Francisco’s Presidio, is celebrating this revered film’s 75th anniversary with a comprehensive retrospective, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic (November 15-April 14, 2013),  two new books, and almost daily 4 p.m. screenings of “Snow White.”  (check the screening schedule here.)

Guest Curated by Lella Smith, Creative Director of the Walt Disney Company’s Animation Research Library (ARL) in Los Angeles, the exhibition features over 200 artworks, including conceptual drawings, character studies, detailed story sketches, and animation drawings, along with thumbnail layout watercolors, pencil layouts, rare watercolor backgrounds, and vintage posters.  Many of these have never been exhibited before and appear for the first time in print in the exhibition catalogue written by Disney scholar J.B. Kaufman.  The artworks are drawn from the Disney Family Museum and from the ARL which acquired an important collection of cleanup animation, layouts, backgrounds and Snow White story sketches from art collector Steve Ison about five years ago.

If you haven’t visited the museum before, now is the time to go as this is a delightful and comprehensive exploration of the film and all that went into it.  It is also the museum’s first exhibit in its elegant special exhibition hall in the Riley building, just behind the main museum.  Built in 1904, this spacious hall was previously the military post’s gymnasium.

Film historian J.B. Kaufman has two new books out celebrating the 75th anniversary of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Film historian J.B. Kaufman has two new books out celebrating the 75th anniversary of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Especially fascinating are the detailed story sketches which trace the evolving storyline that Walt Disney and his artists had for the film and the massive collaborative process this entailed. It literally took a village—32 animators, 1032 assistants, 107 “in-betweeners,” 10 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 special effects animators, 158 inkers and painters and countless production staff—working non-stop for three years.

The exhibition shows every aspect of this collaboration from concept to layout to design—and everything is painstakingly hand-drawn.  Also on display is artwork from scenes that were never fully developed, or that were deleted from the film such as one of Dopey where he is sent up to look for Snow White, or one in which the dwarfs build and carve a bed for Snow White, and another in which she dances in the stars.

“Snow White” continues to garner accolades—it is on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, ranking 34th and in 2008, the AFI also named it “the greatest American animated film of all time.”

Two lavish publications, both by film historian and Disney scholar J.B. Kaufman, trace the film and its art work in breathtaking detail. These were published in November 2012 when the exhibition opened at the Disney Family Museum.

The hardcover catalogue, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: the Creation of a Classic (2012, 256 pages) covers the entire exhibition and includes never-before-seen art and behind-the-scenes stories.  The book, The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (2012, 320 pages) is the definitive story of the film. It covers the origins of the fairy tale, the impact that the 1916 silent feature had on Walt Disney, the genesis of each sequence in the picture, the conception and development of each of the characters, the merchandising the film generated, the film’s success in subsequent theatrical reissues, and the reuse of the Dwarfs in a handful of wartime short films.

J. Searle Dawley’s 1916 silent feature film “Snow White”—screens Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 10 a.m. at Castro Theatre, San Francisco as part of The San Francisco Silent Winter Film Festival sponsored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFS).

Marguerite Clark and Creighton Hale in J. Searly Dawley’s “Snow White,” (1916). SF Silent Film Festival.

Marguerite Clark and Creighton Hale in J. Searly Dawley’s “Snow White,” (1916). SF Silent Film Festival.

Thought of as a lost film until a print was recently found in the Netherlands and restored, this 1916 motion picture feature stars Marguerite Clark as Snow White.  Clark was 33 at the time and had played the role in the popular 1912 play “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  Clark’s popularity in the play and other Broadway productions had led to a silent film contract in 1914 with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation.   The 1916 film is one of the first features that Walt Disney watched as a 16-year old newsboy in Kansas City and would remember all his life. Disney attended a special free screening attended by sixteen thousand children, all packed into the Kansas City Convention Center.  The hall was arranged with four separate screens set in the center of the room and the children circled round. Four projectors ran simultaneously and the film included live musical accompaniment. “I thought it was the perfect story. It had the sympathetic dwarfs, you see? It had the heavy. It had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story.” Walt Disney

“Although this film is quite different from Disney’s animated film, I think you can see sparks of Marguerite Clark’s performance in Walt’s Snow White,” said Anita Monga, SFSFS Artistic Director.  “There are also big differences, notably in the depiction and feel of the wicked stepmothers.”

Marguerite Clark as Snow White in J. Searly Dawley’s 1916 silent film “Snow White.”  Clark was 33 at the time but had youthful features and at just 4’10,” she could pull off much younger characters quite convincingly.  Still courtesy: SFFS.

Marguerite Clark as Snow White in J. Searly Dawley’s 1916 silent film “Snow White.” Clark was 33 at the time but had youthful features and at just 4’10,” she could pull off much younger characters quite convincingly. Film still courtesy: SFFS.

The website “A Lost Film blog” ( has a fascinating side-by-side comparison of film stills from the 1916 film with the 1937 Disney film, showing four cases where Disney drew heavy inspiration from the 1916 film (click here to go to the article)

Film historian and Disney scholar  J.B. Kaufman will introduce the film on Saturday and speak about its enduring impact on Walt Disney who was clearly influenced by the film but made his own artistic statement through brilliant and unforgettable animation.

Following the screening, Kaufman will sign his two new books on Snow White, which will be for sale, in the lobby of the Castro Theatre  (“Snow White” screens February 16, 2013 10 a.m. with Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin on grand piano and Introduction by J.B. Kaufman.

Buy tickets, $15, online here.  For more information: The San Francisco Silent Winter Film Festival.

“Blancanieves,” Spanish director Pablo Berger’s mesmerizing Oscar-nominated black and white silent film—coming soon to select Bay Area theatres 

Carmen (Sofía Oria) right is brought up by her flamenco dancer grandmother (Ángela Molina) in Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” (2011).

Carmen (Sofía Oria) right is brought up by her flamenco dancer grandmother (Ángela Molina) in Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” (2011).

A spellbinding original!  This lush black and white silent film from 2011 inventively situates the Snow White story in 1920’s Seville where a young girl Carmen/Snow White (played as a child by Sofía Oria, and later by Macarena García) is the daughter of the once-renowned matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho).  He was crippled in the ring and is still grieving for his wife, who died during childbirth.  Carmen is brought up by her flamenco dancer grandmother (Ángela Molina), then tormented by her tyrannical narcissistic stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú).  She is secretly schooled in the art of bullfighting by her father, just before his malicious new wife enacts a terrible revenge on him.  Knowing that she’s in grave danger, Carmen escapes Encarna’s custody and joins a travelling troupe of bullfighting dwarves, eventually rising to fame in the corrida under the stage name Blancanieves.  The drama, infused with fascinating story twists, is propelled by Alfonso de Vilallonga’s hypnotic musical score which includes thrilling flamenco passages.  Kiko de la Rica’s chiaroscuro photography, with its compelling close-ups, adds even more interest to this remarkable dram.  (2011, 104 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles, Spain’s official foreign language entry to the 2013 Academy Awards.)   To see this film, check the listings for art-house theatres that are screening Oscar nominees.  Last month, the film screened to a full house at San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center and it is sure to emerge again.  With its cinematography and captivating story, this is a silent film to savor on the big screen.

February 12, 2013 Posted by | Art, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment