Mezzo-Soprano Blythe Gaissert as Hansel Takes Cues from Young Sons Bringing ‘Hansel and Gretel’ to San Diego Opera’s Production of the Beloved Fairy Tale Opera

San Diegans impressed with the vocal and dramatic skills of mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert in San Diego Opera’s 2017 production of Laura Kaminsky’s challenging contemporary chamber opera As One should rejoice. Gaissert is back in town to sing the role of Hansel in the company’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 fairy tale opera Hansel and Gretel that opens February 8 in the Civic Theatre.

Blythe Gaissert [photo courtesy of the artist]

Between rehearsals earlier this week in the company’s new rehearsal rooms in Liberty Station, Gaissert described how differently she approaches the role from her first time singing Hansel with Tulsa Opera.

“Of course I have moved up into the role and feel more vocally confident than 10 years ago,” she offered. “But now that I have my own children, I see the role differently—my perception has changed. Raising two boys—ages 3 and 10—I am aware of the intense physicality of boys. They have a lot of what I call ‘squirrel.’ For them, there are no shades of grey or impulse control. I note that the girls at my older son’s age exhibit much more impulse control than his male peers.

“So I get to be crazy and physical on stage. Gretel may try to be the mother in our situation, taking charge, but I have the moments of comedy. I get to sing Wagner and run around the stage!”

Humperdinck studied with Richard Wagner, and he assisted the most influential German composer of the 19th century with the first production of his final opera Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882. Many see Wagner’s influence in Humperdinck’s use of a large, dominating orchestra in Hansel and Gretel, as well as a rich harmonic vocabulary that is indebted to Wagner. But when it comes to Humperdinck’s approach to the vocal line, Gaissert has other thoughts.

“Everyone talks about Wagner’s influence in Humperdinck’s melodies, but I actually hear a lot of Mendelssohn in those lines.”

Although Humperdinck based his Hansel and Gretel on one of the most familiar fairy tales from the Grimm brothers, it has appealed to adults from its first performance.

“This opera works on multiple levels, like a really good Disney movie such as Cinderella. The kids in the audience see the cute mice, but the adults see the jealousy and manipulation by the adult characters. Hansel and Gretel is a multi-layered story, and in this production there is lots of eye candy in the life-sized puppets, but the depth of the score is musically appealing for adults. Fairy tales are by nature cautionary tales, and this one has not been dumbed down in any way for the opera.”

This San Diego Opera production of the opera comes from Vancouver Opera and uses many life-sized puppets in the style of Japanese bunraku puppetry, designed is by the Canadian company Old Trout Puppet Workshop. “Some of the singers operate the puppets, and the children’s choir’s use of the puppets is quite magical. Only Gretel [sung by soprano Sara Gartland] and I don’t operate our own puppets, although we are each shadowed by a puppet.”

Gaissert noted that San Diego’s production would be sung in English translation, rather than the original German text. “The composer wanted it that way,” she noted. Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera made its way to London a year after its 1893 premiere in Weimar, Germany, and was produced New York City in 1895. Before any operas by Richard Strauss had been produced, the young Strauss offered to conduct the premiere of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. In a letter to the composer, Strauss praised “the finesse, the polyphonic richness of the orchestration . . .all that is new, original, truly German.”  He added that it would be especially pleasing to those whose were tired of Italian verismo.

To be sure, La bohème, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Tosca remain huge favorites with the opera public.

“Yes, but  you can’t avoid the heavy, dark stories of this style of opera,” Gaissert noted. “But when you experience Hansel and Gretel, you walk out feeling uplifted!”

San Diego Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” opens on Saturday, February 8, 2020, at the San Diego Civic Theatre for four performances. Additional performances in the same venue are February 11, 14, and 16 (matinee), 2020. In addition to Blythe Gassert and Sara Gartland in the title roles, these singers will be joined by baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as the Father; tenor Joel Sorensen as the Witch, and soprano Marcy Stonikas as the Mother. Ari Pelto makes his company debut conducting the orchestra, and Brenna Corner is responsible for the stage direction.

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