Such an exhilarating transformation awaits you in New York City Opera's revival of Hansel and Gretel, reimagined in New York's Gilded Age. In 1998, when City Opera was planning a new production of this classic, director James Robinson resolved to try to strip away some of the century's worth of sugar-coating that had sapped the opera of some of its emotional power. He found a kindred spirit in production designer John Conklin, who had long fantasized about the possibility of Hansel and Gretel becoming lost in New York City. City Opera's dramaturg, Cori Ellison, was enlisted to create a brand-new singing translation tailor-made for this unique production, translating the original German libretto into a lyrical English that makes it possible to believe that the story of Hansel and Gretel might actually have happened here.
City Opera's production updates the Brothers Grimm's tale, of medieval vintage, to 1893, the year that Englebert Humperdinck's opera premiered in Germany, and at the crest of a wave of German immigration to America. It shifts the story's milieu from the Ilsenstein forest of Bavaria to the splendor of the Gilded Age in New York, when the Lower East Side tenements of the immigrant underclass stood in stark contrast with the Fifth Avenue mansions of wealthy robber barons.
Nevertheless, designer Conklin hastens to explain that "neither the opera nor this production is a piece of social realism. We may start there, but then it opens out into fantasy." As Conklin explains, "As an opera it's almost literally Wagnerian. I responded first to the music itself, and especially to the angel scene," which is the opera's most famous excerpt, and emblematic of the religious overlay in German Romanticism.
The City Opera creative team chose to reimagine the "angels" as ordinary people whom children might see as symbols of safety — guardians perhaps, if not actual angels. "In the back of my mind," said Conklin, "was the idea of what is truly frightening to children; the kind of desperation and fear that one sees in the photographs of [social reformer] Jacob Riis of life on the Lower East Side. Then, being lost in the big city that they didn't know; exacerbated the isolation they share with their parents as immigrants."
After being sent out to forage for food and getting lost in Central Park, Hansel and Gretel wander further and further uptown, eventually finding themselves lost among the mansions of Fifth Avenue, where they encounter the wealthy, benign-looking (but child-eating) witch, who threatens, quite credibly, to "eat them up."
As Conklin points out, what parent or grandparent has not cooed, "I could eat you up," to an adorable offspring? "The witch's candy house," he observed, "is all a kind of terrible parody of parenthood, mothering, and nurturing." Conklin also notes that the children's adventures may be motivated by factors other than candy: "Little poor kids, having wandered too far up Fifth Avenue, would see these houses and dream that, once inside, they would be succored and warm."
Like Conklin, director James Robinson envisioned Hansel and Gretel as a piece that would depict the struggle of a poor immigrant family to adapt to a challenging new city with a diverse mix of social castes. Within this framework, Robinson explained, many of the key elements fell quickly into place. "In New York, venturing out of your neighborhood can already be scary. Then they get lost in Central Park after dark. And these kids are dealing with a real class struggle, too. Our witch has something of the look of affluent, powerful people as they may appear to poor people — which can be scarier than just a green-skinned hag."
Translator Ellison claims that "German is the easiest language to adapt into an English singing translation, because its cadence and vowel and consonant sounds are closest to English," downplaying the challenges any translator faces in juggling the myriad creative choices inherent in the task. Ellison, for example, made a decision at the outset, in conjunction with director Robinson and designer Conklin, to maintain the libretto's original rhyme scheme. Ellison explained that much of the sound of the opera's music spins off the lilt of rhyme in the libretto, making it fundamental to the translation as well.
"Our translation strives to be every bit as Romantic as the original in passages where the tone is poetic, as, for example, in the Sandman's song," she said. By contrast, she points to the squabbling of the two children in Act I as a passage in which vernacular colloquialisms fit the boisterousness of the music, and of children's play. She adds, "Where appropriate, I also traded some of the quaintness of the German folk tradition for an American musical theater sensibility more immediate to our audiences."
Other considerations in translating a libretto are the vocal sounds themselves, says Ellison. "I try to duplicate as much as possible the vowel sounds in the original libretto, and where that isn't possible, to be as friendly to the singers as possible, especially on high notes."
The singers approve. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, who will reprise her acclaimed 2002 Hansel here this month, says, "Cori's translation is a pleasure, extremely clever and also easy to sing. Cori manages to capture the feel of the German with her own clever spin. I love some of the 'American things' Hansel says, and it's absolutely perfect for an American audience to bring our idioms into this opera." Claiming that the City Opera's version has influenced her interpretation of Hansel in other productions, she says, "The point is for the audience to be able to understand the plight of the children. We keep all the emotions the composer intended while bringing this beautiful and moving piece to a whole new generation."
Soprano Jennifer Aylmer, who portrayed Gretel in the 1998 premiere of this production and returns to the cast this fall, adds, "What I love about this production is the realism of the translation. We're performing the 'folk tunes' in the original German, and the more 'conversational' dialogue in English. It lends an air of authenticity, as well as a variety of sound on the listener's ear."
Although New York City Opera's Hansel and Gretel production may be particular to its specific time and place, it merges nimbly with a universal tale; New York's Gilded Age has a "mythic" quality of its own. Director Robinson asserts, "We really worked hard to retain that sort of lush Romantic otherworldliness."
Assistant director David Grabarkewitz, who directs the present revival, praises "the great combination of singing actors that City Opera has cast, which means there's even more fun to be had by the audience. Scene by scene, this production brings a sense of mystery, urgency, and ultimately life to these characters. James Robinson and John Conklin hit it out of the park and hopefully audiences will see that as well."
Kathleen Watt writes frequently on the performing arts.