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