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  • Scott Williamson

H&G in NOLA with TOI

TOI Season VI | Hansel & Gretel in NOLA | Humperdinck N.B.s | July 2018

I'm so excited to be back "home" working with Tidewater Opera Initiative for the third time in their first six seasons. Bravo e grazie a lei, TOI!

Below are some notes and thoughts on Humperdinck, H & G and fairy tales, etc. Images are (mostly) from a recent visit to the awesome Chrysler Museum of Art. What a gift to this community its arts and music are.

Engelbert Humperdinck met Wagner in Naples in 1879 and was invited to assist “the Master” on his last work, Parsifal (for which Humperdinck composed some additional instrumental music to accommodate the staging in the "Transformation" scene, with Wagner’s approval).

He then won the Meyerbeer Prize in 1881 (an irony not lost on those aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitic screeds against that under-appreciated Jewish composer of French grand operas).

E.H. taught in Barcelona and was hired by Wagner’s widow, Cosima to teach their son, Siegfried [sic] Wagner.

H&G was originally a parlor drama for EH’s sister, Adelheid Wette, and it was ironically labelled “A Nursery-Dedicatory Festival Drama” (Kinderstuben-Weihfestspiel– a comic nod to Parsifal’s designation as a Bühnenweihfestspiel– “A Festival Drama for the Consecration of the Stage”).

The classic Grimm Brothers tale was then expanded into a full length children’s opera and the Weimar premiere was conducted by Richard Strauss.

The final duet between Octavian and Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier (overshadowed by the gorgeous trio which immediately precedes it) owes more than a passing resemblance to the “Evening Prayer” which is the highlight of Humperdinck’s score for most listeners...

Humperdinck assimilated a variety of stylistic influences into a voice that, if not prolific, composed much more memorable music than his “one-hit wonder” status would allow. Not only did he follow Wagner’s example by writing long melodies with chromatically-shifting harmonies, all with a sense of the Germanic orchestral tradition inherited from Beethoven, but Humperdinck also wove Italian influences into his music. H&G is an exact contemporary to the verismo movement in Italy (he was six years older than Puccini). In his sense of dramatic pacing and his gift for “intelligent simplicity” he is closer to Leoncavallo and Mascagni (composers of the quintessential verismo operas, I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana). It is worth mentioning that Puccini and Toscanini were admirers of Humperdinck.

Piranesi: Man on the Rack (from "Imaginary Prisons")

(Piranesi: "Man on the Rack," from the series of etchings, "Imaginary Prisons," at the CMA.

Is the Gingerbread house not a prison, a place of fear and torture for its victims?...)

With his next opera, Königskinder ("The King’s Children" – another fairy-tale opera, available in video with Jonas Kaufmann from a new Zurich Opera production), he anticipated the Sprechstimme style of Schoenberg by using new notation to indicate declamation. ("Sprechstimme" or "speech-song" is the half spoken, half-intoned style where textual rhythm is notated but pitch is indicated by inflection. It intends a melodramatic effect, and was made famous in Schoenberg's telling of the Pagliacci/Pierrot commedia dell'arte tale in his landmark chamber monodrama, Pierrot Lunaire.)

One version of the H&G tale opens with a stark, realist tone not typical of fairy tales told as they’re typically told in Hollywood: “Times were hard. Work was scarce, and food prices were high.” For inquiring minds, see Bruno Bettelheim’s study of fairy-tales, The Uses of Enchantment. It’s a classic and was a source for Sondheim’s dark fairy-tale musical drama, Into the Woods.

Limitations of time and space do not permit a more comprehensive delve into the complex world of the fairy-tale, where every word, every object, every character and every action is both symbolic and an essential detail or component in the narrative, which is the story we’re being told by our elders in order to educate, entertain, warn, affirm and/or distract us…

To take one example, the Witch joins a long lineage of shape-shifting magicians, conjurors and sorcerers, from Homer to Hogwarts. Circe (not the brilliant ice-queen from "Game of Thrones" but the Homeric original) turns Odysseus’ men to swine, and Alcina (one of Handel’s great operatic heroines) turns her ship-wrecked “guests” into animals. So Madame LeRoux of Bourbon St who turns her victims into Gingerbread (or Beignet) Children in our cool new production, is in extraordinary company…

Goya: Saturn Devouring his Children

Goya's gothic horror image of "Saturn devouring His Children" is not far from the dark forests of the Grimm Brothers. Myth and fairy-tale are at least first cousins. Vik Muniz's reimagining of this famous canvas is worth seeing at the Chrysler. And TOI's new production of the classic operatic fairy-tale, Hansel & Gretel, set in the famed French Quarter of New Orleans, is not to be missed Aug 3-5!

Vik Muniz: Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children, photograph of found objects, various media

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