Once upon a time, there was a giant whose voice loomed over opera like darkness over the floor of the primeval forest. His name was Richard Wagner, and even after his death his convoluted chromaticism and inexorable power held Europe in their grip‹until the dawn of the 20th century when Italian verismo replaced Wagner's myth and mysticism with gritty reality. Yet even though the Wagner sound held such sway over operatic composers, only one product of that environment of post-Wagner Wagnerians has endured as a favorite, and it is an unlikely representative of the tradition.
That opera is Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, a work whose simplicity and charm have both distinguished it from its contemporaries and helped earn it immediate and lasting success.
Humperdinck became a Wagner acolyte not long after his parents‹who originally pushed him to study architecture‹allowed him to transfer to the Köln Conservatory. From there he went to the Königliche Musikschule in Munich, where he joined the "Orden vom Gral," a group of fellow students and other like-minded musicians devoted to the Wagner cause. A year later, at 25, he won the Berlin Mendelssohn Prize, which enabled him to spend a year in Italy. There he met Wagner himself. After some weeks as a guest at the composer's Neapolitan villa, he was invited to Bayreuth to help work on Parsifal and in December 1882 to Venice to assist Wagner again. Two months later Humperdinck's mentor would be dead. For the next seven years, study and teaching superseded composition.
The prelude to Hänsel und Gretel, Humperdinck's first major work after that dry spell, is a clear evocation of, and perhaps an intended homage to, Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser, right down to the soft horn chorale in the opening bars. Wagnerian influence more generally permeates the opera in orchestral color and the use of leitmotifs, those thematic crumbs with which Wagner marked paths through dense thickets of sound. But, in place of the grandiose solemnity of Wagner's themes, Humperdinck used the simple tale of two poor children lost in the woods.
That's not to say that the opera is "Wagner lite." True, it lacks any pretense at achieving mythic dimensions, and its protagonists are humble. However, when compared to the sanitized, resolutely affirmative character of much of today's culture for children, even the softened version used by Humperdinck is made of dark and heavy stuff: fear, violence, and death. In The Uses of Enchantment, his groundbreaking exploration of the meaning and importance of fairy tales, the writer Bruno Bettelheim demonstrated how the tale confronts issues of oral greed, separation anxiety, and maternal cannibalism‹for pure psychological drama, it stands up to any story set by Wagner.
Humperdinck nonetheless casts a spell of simplicity on the Wagnerian musical world in which Hänsel und Gretel takes place, and the key to that spirit is in the work's origins. It was not conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk‹a total work of art‹but rather grew from songs composed for domestic entertainment at the house of Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette. Wette lived with her husband and two daughters in Köln, where they had the 19th-century version of a home theater system: a puppet show. She would write verses, largely adapted from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and her brother‹"Uncle Entepent"‹would set them to music. For Hänsel und Gretel she devised a condensed version of the Grimms's tale, changing the evil stepmother into the children's angry but caring real mom and eliminating, among other things, those famous bread crumbs.
The original four songs were a hit with family and houseguests, and Humperdinck was urged to develop them into a singspiel, or musical play. He consented, expanding the piece into 16 songs, which he presented to his fiancée, Hedwig Taxer, as a Christmas present in 1890. He began to work on orchestration the next summer, and Taxer's present the following Christmas was the draft of the opera, with a full libretto by his sister. He preferred to think of it not as an opera but as a fairy-tale play, but it was clearly aimed at the same audiences that flocked to the works of his mentor years before. "It is said that Mrs. Adelheid Wette, née Humperdinck, the author of Hänsel und Gretel, never thought of it as an opera," wrote the influential and curmudgeonly Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick. "But this was not enough for Humperdinck. With his little children he wanted to get hold of the big children, and not at home but in the opera house."
Even in classical music circles, Humperdinck is widely known today for this work alone; in the wider world, his star has been eclipsed by the pop balladeer who adopted his name. History may now regard him as a minor composer and "one-trick pony," but his contemporaries thought otherwise. As composer and teacher, he worked alongside the leading musical figures of his time, and the names associated with Hänsel und Gretel in one way or another come straight from the Who's Who of music in Middle Europe. Richard Strauss conducted the premiere in Weimar, two days before Christmas in 1893. The following year, Gustav Mahler conducted the first performance in Hamburg and Felix Weingartner the first in Berlin, where the audience included the Kaiser and his wife. Among the listeners at the Vienna premiere in December 1894 were the composer, his good friend Hugo Wolf‹who had encouraged Humperdinck to turn the domestic entertainment into a fully fledged stage work in the first place‹and Johannes Brahms.
"And then there is young Siegfried Wagner's statement that Hänsel und Gretel is the most important opera since Parsifal," wrote Hanslick, referring to Richard's son and Humperdinck's student and friend. "In other words, the best in full twelve years? An irritating pronouncement, and the worst of it is‹that it is true."