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Backstage: 'Hansel & Gretel' tale gets operatic treatment

Artistic Director Willene Gunn is directing Brava! Opera Theater’s next production: “Hansel and Gretel.” Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck in 1893, the opera is softer and more fanciful than the well-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

It’s the story of two poor starving children who are lost in the woods and are captured by a wicked witch. They cleverly outsmart her and escape. In the opera, the children are playful, the woods are supernatural; and delightful gingerbread children are magically brought to life at the end. “Hansel and Gretel” will be accompanied by an 18-piece orchestra conducted by Martin Majkut. A chorus of 10 children will also perform.

Gunn first came to Ashland in 1959, as a singer, to perform with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the Elizabethan Theatre. She went on to have an extensive career in opera, and was the director of the opera program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for 30 years. We visited at the Downtowne Coffee House in Talent.

EH: Tell me about the opera “Hansel and Gretel.”

WG: It’s Humperdinck’s one big popular work. The music is very melodious and fun, and yet it fits the drama exactly right. I’ve directed it often, and sung the Witch a great many times. The Witch, for some reason, has a great fondness for gingerbread. And she has to catch these kids, bake them into cookies, and eat them. This time, I’ve staged it with children because there are a lot of poor children in this country, and everybody is hungry in the show.

It’s beautifully structured. It’s a very lush orchestration with a lot of strings. It’s based on about 16 different German folk tunes. People will hear tunes in it that they recognize, especially the children.

When I sang the Witch in San Francisco, they would bring the children backstage to meet the Witch, and I could see what the children got out of it. I was signing programs, and I was aware of this little girl standing there, she was so tiny, about 3. She was just furious. You could feel this energy coming out of her. I looked at her and said, “Did you enjoy the show?” She said, “You made me mad.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You put Hansel in a cage.” I said, “Well, yes, but you got even with me, you pushed me in the oven.” She said, “Yes, and we turned you into gingerbread.” I saw how involved she’d been. I’ve tried to stage it for kids. Adults will enjoy it, but I want the children to enjoy it. It’s a good opera to take kids to.

EH: What’s unique about opera as an art form?

WG: Everything in opera comes from the music. The music tells you what people are feeling. You create the music when you’re acting it. The singers create the orchestration emotionally. The orchestra is not just accompanying them; they’re creating the music and the drama with the orchestration in one unit. Opera has all the arts combined into one.

Note: The fully staged opera “Hansel and Gretel” will feature a national cast of professional opera singers and instrumentalists with an English translation by Marcie Stapp. Choreography is by Suzanne Seiber; set design by Doug Hamm; costume design by Karen Douglas; lighting design Bob Peterson; and props by Donna Boehm.

Gunn has authored a textbook with Kathyrn Cathcart: “Teaching Opera, The Role of the Opera Workshop With Scene Catalogue.” For information about the book, visit bravaopera.com.

“Hansel and Gretel” performances start at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 22, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24, 2019 at the Mountain Avenue Theater, 201 South Mountain Ave, Ashland. For tickets and more information, visit bravaopera.com.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director based in Ashland. To read more interviews with remarkable people, visit her blog at ashlandtheater.wordpress.com. Email her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.

Willene Gunn