The Brothers Grimm were in top form when they found and refashioned an old German folk legend into the unforgettable fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Whether or not one accepts the view that it portrays the hardships of medieval life, there remains something uncanny and not a little frightening about the story, which puts starving children into a life-or-death confrontation with a cannibalistic witch. The opera of the same name was composed in 1891 by Engelbert Humperdinck, a talented disciple of Wagner who saw its potential for the stage. On Saturday, October 27, Opera Santa Barbara will bring this children’s classic to life in a full production directed by Miller James at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. In a fit of generosity that will leave many people wondering if they are living in a fairy tale, the opera will be presented free for children 12 and under, with adult tickets only $13. The performance will have the full musical integrity and professional production values Opera Santa Barbara is known for, and it is guaranteed to delight young and old.
I spoke with James recently about the challenges and satisfactions of directing this classic opera for a young audience.
Free is a pretty good price for this show. How do you feel about that? To me that is just fantastic, because making great music and theater available to children for free is right up my alley. I have been directing the Storybook Theatre project for Ensemble Theatre Company for eleven years now, so I know many of the young actors and actresses in town, and their parents, and I am really looking forward to seeing them stream through the doors at the Luke on the 27th. The only qualification I would make is to say that just because it is free doesn’t mean that it will not be valuable. The real reason that Opera Santa Barbara is making this production free to children is for the outreach. We are hoping that people who might not ordinarily take their children to an opera-because it is expensive and they are not sure if they will like it-will feel like this is a no-risk way to expose their children and themselves to something that they might really enjoy.
Do you remember your first opera experience? Oh yes. I was about ten and I saw The Marriage of Figaro in Seattle. I was fascinated. I don’t know that it changed my life right then and there, because I still liked baseball more than opera, but something started inside me that would come out later on. Now that I have children of my own, well, we happen to be a very theatrical family, so even if I were not directing this show, I would be there with my own kids, sitting in the front row.
What can we look forward to in the treatment you are giving this production? There are a couple of things that I think are worth pointing out. First off, I have a lot of experience with adapting older material, like fairy tales, for a modern audience. One thing we generally agree on is that it is not really fair to all the real live stepmothers in town who are working so hard to get along with their stepchildren if we perpetuate the archetype of the wicked stepmother, so we are definitely downplaying that. In the original it is not even a stepmother but their biological mother who sends the children off to the woods, and she doesn’t do it to get rid of them. She has nothing to feed them and she sends them berry-picking. Later on the idea that this was a wicked stepmother trying to get rid of the children became popular, but we’re not going there.
The other thing is about how we are handling the witch. The Luke is not set up for flying, which is in the script-a fairly substantial sequence of the witch flying on a broomstick-so we had to improvise. At first I liked the idea of wheeled shoes, and then we thought about a skateboard-something that would appeal to the boys in the audience. And we ended up with a Razor scooter, which is what the woman playing the witch felt most comfortable on.
Hansel and Gretel starts at 2 and 4pm on Saturday, October 27 at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, 721 East Cota St. For more information, call 963-0761 or visit operasb.com.