Two of Houston Grand Opera's hottest tickets this season are new productions of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella), both based on classic fairy tales. And while both works are kid-friendly — emphatically so — their themes aren't merely "kid stuff." The material they explore is similar to that in dozens of other great operas and ballets. Even Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen, which HGO presents this spring, uses folkloric music and a timeless life-and-death theme to create a "musical fable" — it's not quite a fairy tale, but it evokes a kindred spirit.
Hardcore scholars, such as Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim, have shown how folklore and fairy tales reflect humankind's deepest, most primal fears (witches, wolves, dark forests, unloving parents). We've been telling these stories since the birth of our species. Literature offers little else that is comparably rich, direct, and open to multifaceted interpretation by successive generations.
"Opera itself is almost a fairy-tale genre — more so in the electrified age, more so in English," says composer Mark Adamo, whose Little Women and Lysistrata had world premieres at HGO. "The anti-naturalistic qualities of sung drama — let alone the concert voice and acoustic orchestra — lend themselves much more to emotion-charged metaphor than to vernacular or journalistic narrative. And what's a fairy tale but an emotion-charged metaphor?"
Humperdinck was attracted to Hansel and Gretel (proposed by his sister, Adelhaid Wette, who wrote the libretto) because the Grimm Brothers' tales were as rich, nearly as old, and every bit as German as anything his mentor, Richard Wagner, ever set — though Americans may not realize this today.
When the Grimms were alive, Germany was still a patchwork of principalities, not one country but dozens. By compiling their famous fairy tales (and a mammoth dictionary, too), the Grimms helped Germans understand that they shared a language and a national literature, decades before the country was unified politically in 1871.
Thus Hansel and Gretel could carry forward Wagner's ideas about art and nationalism; it's sometimes even described as a Ring cycle for children. Humperdinck later wrote operas based on "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Goose Girl," too.
Fairy-tale operas are fun for the audience. For one thing, the plot is easy to follow. Listeners don't have to do homework on medieval Italian politics or ancient Greek genealogies. Most of us have an emotional investment in the stories already: we look forward to seeing Cinderella's dreams come true. And we can bring the children.
The librettist's job is made easier, too, by the straightforwardness and brevity of the plots. Adapting literary masterworks by Shakespeare or Goethe requires savage cuts, while a fairy tale gives the librettist the option of adding detail and intrigue, and of reshaping the story to convey new themes.
Joyce DiDonato has triumphed around the world as Rossini's Cinderella; an HGO Studio alumna, DiDonato brings the role to Houston this season. But she recently sang Cendrillon, Massenet's version of the same tale, for the first time, in Santa Fe.
"Doing this version makes me see how differently the two composers saw the story and the character," the mezzo-soprano says. "Massenet definitely went the Romantic route, along with concentrating on the father-daughter relationship, which I think is one of the most special aspects of that piece. But the Romantic vision of Cinderella's rescue by Prince Charming is secondary in Rossini's version. To me, the overriding moral of this story is forgiveness.
"There's a lot of set-up for Cenerentola's plight in this story, and her suffering as she's rejected by her family," DiDonato continues. "Yet even as the Prince returns to 'rescue' her, she doesn't run out right away, she's still begging for her family's affection and acceptance. At the end, she doesn't choose to sing immediately about the balls she'll attend and the gowns she'll wear — she spends a lot of time singing about forgiveness and the joy she feels now, being surrounded by all her loved ones."
"I see Hansel and Gretel as a story about hope and about overcoming your fears," declares Studio artist Liam Bonner, who sings Humperdinck's Witch while enveloped in an oversized puppet designed by master puppeteer Basil Twist. Bonner compares Hansel and Gretel to young students who have left home for the first time. "They learn a lot about themselves as they go through their journey," he says, "being out on their own and finding their way along life's path, discovering traps and snares in this world, and deciding for themselves how they will deal with everything."
Ultimately, "Hansel and Gretel realize how much their parents really do love them," Bonner observes. "This story has a wonderful message for both children and grown-ups, each discovering something about the piece on their own level."
Singing the Witch doesn't faze him. "I'm a baritone, and we're used to playing the bad guy in an opera." Other people, however, are still getting used to the idea, he admits.
"I've done a couple of shows where my little cousins would comment afterwards about how mean I was to all the other characters. I used to have to explain that I wasn't really like that, and that I was just playing a part. A few children in the [Hansel] audience might not like to run into me on the street, but luckily I look nothing like the Witch in real life. At least, I hope not!"
"I can't approach a fairy-tale character differently than a 'real' character," says DiDonato. "What makes any story wonderful is that the audience, or the reader, can get into the score, or into the pages, with these fragile, broken, beautiful characters and walk with them, feel with them, live their experiences. If I do anything less than treat them completely, as a whole, the experience for the audience will suffer. Cenerentola's rejection by her family can be felt just as strongly by the audience, regardless of the fact that she's only from a fairy tale!"
For all their appeal, of course, fairy tales can still be controversial. Many educators claim the stories convey unwholesome values, that "Cinderella," for instance, may teach children passivity.
Nonsense, says DiDonato, whose rendition of Cenerentola's marathon aria, "Nacqui all'affanno," is anything but passive. "It takes incredible strength for her to be in the down-and-out situation in which she finds herself, and constantly to take the position of goodness, understanding, and forgiveness," she says. "I think she is an incredible role model, and someone who should be in front of the public, both young and old! There's a lot packed into all those fast notes and patter that Rossini laid down!"
DiDonato admits she didn't read many fairy tales as a girl, preferring to watch Wonder Woman. Sadly, that's an opera yet to be written. But we can dream — and at the opera, dreams do come true.
William V. Madison, a native Texan, lives in Paris and writes frequently on opera.