New York City just might be the center of the holiday universe, with a vast array of seasonal activities from skating in Wollman Rink to tree-lightings around town to countless Messiahs, and, of course, The Nutcracker.
Last December the Met entered the fray with its own addition to the seasonal entertainment slate. An abridged English-language version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, adapted from the spectacular hit production by Tony Award winner Julie Taymor, launched the new holiday series. With family-friendly prices and show times that wouldn't keep children up late, it was a sensation that played to sold-out houses. And the opening performance was captured as the first of the Met's groundbreaking series of live high-definition transmissions into movie theaters around the world.
The holiday performances — and the HD series — are part of the Met's mission to open up the opera house to a broader public. "It's important not only to reach new adult audiences, but also to cultivate and nurture the audiences of the future," says General Manager Peter Gelb. "If we get to them early, we can win them for life."
Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel has long been associated with the holiday season — it premiered on December 23, 1893. The librettist, none other than the composer's sister, Adelheid Wette, originally asked her brother to write a few songs based on the Brothers Grimm tale as a Christmas gift for her children. This family production was so successful, and Humperdinck so enthusiastic about the subject, that the piece eventually grew into a full opera. The Met's own live Saturday radio broadcast series began with Hansel and Gretel on Christmas Day, 1931.
Like that other holiday favorite — the Nutcracker ballet with its famous "Land of the Sweets" — food plays an important part in Hansel and Gretel. But audiences who come expecting sugarplums are in for a somewhat different taste sensation. Jones's staging — a version of which premiered several years ago at Welsh National Opera — is not afraid to realize the darker aspects of the fairy tale, which made a strong impression on the director when he was taken to see it as a child. "I thought the story was lurid and fascinating," Jones recalls.
"It's a feast for a child, really: it's got lots of very scary things in it and lots of very sweet things. I can remember vividly making many drawings of it."
Some of his memories even made their way into this staging. With sets and costumes designed by John Macfarlane and lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton, an earlier incarnation of the production won over audiences and critics in Cardiff and went on to travel to London (where it earned an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production), Chicago, and San Francisco. The Met performances boast a stellar international cast, featuring mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Hansel, soprano Christine Sch‹fer as Gretel, and tenor Philip Langridge as the Witch.
A former musician, Jones is attuned to the nuances of Humperdinck's rich, folk-inspired score. "I think the music is about 85 percent of the 'text' in an opera," he says. Particularly impressed by the variety of musical styles in the opera's three acts, he chose to mirror them by representing each act in a different theatrical style — from D.H. Lawrence to German Expressionism to the Theater of the Absurd — with the unifying idea of setting each of them in a kitchen or other food-related space.
Maestro Jurowski, who conducted the original production, encouraged him to explore this concept, and Jones is delighted to be working with him again as he develops it to fit the Met's enormous stage. "To have a collaborator like him, who's very literate and engaged in the production, is enormously helpful," Jones declares. And although he believes that productions are most effective when a director has strong ideas, experience has also taught him that those ideas can be shifted by what occurs in rehearsal. When he first meets with a cast, he asks them to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel as they know it, as a starting point to getting them all on the same page.
With such a familiar story, directors can be tempted to view the opera through the spectrum of modern psychology. But Jones considers his approach to be a poetic rendition, rather than a psychological interpretation or postmodern deconstruction.
"I don't think any of those things ever occurred to Humperdinck," he explains. "It's written as a very redemptive story. It's a naive work of art that's got great profundity."