A Haunting Quality: Hansel and Gretel

Classic Arts Features   A Haunting Quality: Hansel and Gretel
With its opulent musical textures and powerful archetypes, Humperdinck's opera surpasses the holiday diversion the composer intended.

So you think fairy tales are child's play? Think again. We only suppose that we outgrow the ancient tales‹still spellbound, perhaps, by the trademark heroines and villains that Walt Disney unleashed into the world with his brilliantly reductive animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

That urgency to entertain, however, ostensibly sheltering young listeners, denies them the journey they must make. Primal terrors are the whole point, as Joseph Campbell suggested: "The monstrous, irrational, unnatural motifs of folk tale…are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision...phrases of an image language [expressing] metaphysical, psychological, and sociological truth." We need them.

There are many ways into fairy tales‹political analysis, feminist retelling, Jungian symbology‹and opera. "Almost as immediately as dreams," wrote musicologist Robert Donington, "and far more coherently, opera offers a royal road into the unconscious, drawing…on regions of the psyche where consciousness has little power to penetrate."

With its opulent musical textures and powerful archetypes, Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel has far surpassed the holiday diversion he originally intended. As a worshipful student of Richard Wagner, Humperdinck had served as répétiteur for the world premiere of Wagner's Parsifal at Bayreuth. Alongside that master, Humperdinck absorbed superb orchestral craftsmanship, the essence of Wagner's self-styled Zukunftmusik ["Music of the Future"], and, even more importantly, Wagner's obeisance to mythology's transfiguring potential. Humperdinck brought all of this to bear in his operatic retelling of Hansel and Gretel, composed to a libretto by his sister, Adelheid Humperdinck Wette.

Yet Humperdinck engages us initially with the comfortable charms of folk melody. And, consistent with the Romantic sensibilities of her times, Wette's rhymes heavily expurgate the folk tale first archived by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, minimizing both the malice and the grisly methods of the most evil characters. So Disney was not the first to strip-mine the tales for commercial viability. Here's critic Eduard Hanslick reproving Humperdinck in 1892:

With his little children he wanted to get hold of the big children…in the opera house…. Thus: a children's fairy-tale with brilliant adornments, a large orchestra, and the most modern music, preferably Wagnerian. No sooner said than done! The composer…attained his goal‹whether with acceptable artistic means or not is disputable…. The audience…broke into applause the like of which has rarely been heard in the opera house.

Fortunately, Humperdinck's source material resists tinkering, steeped as it is in German Romanticism, fixed in archetypal lore. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm follow the literary lineage of Goethe, Novalis and Schiller‹scholars whose consecrated lifework would be to collect the entire oral tradition of a fractured Germanic people at a time when Napoleon threatened to swamp every culture on the continent. As Campbell declared, the Grimms produced "the masterpiece which the whole Romantic movement in Germany had been intending."

Dating from pre-medieval, pre-literate times, orally sustained folk tales served as education, as recreation, and as the parables of pre-Christian religion. They carried news and gossip and cautionary lessons, they taught history and civic responsibility. There were tales from the monastery and the spinning room, bawdy entertainments from the roadhouse, tales of harrowing adventures, magic beans, talking animals, ogres and witches, kings and queens, mothers and fathers. Depicted in what scholars call a "language of universality," the characters are ageless, usually nameless (except for those with descriptive monikers like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella), living under unspecified potentates in generalized locations, facing convertible challenges. Only the stakes are unambiguous: Their choices are good versus evil, the paths traveled sunlit versus benighted, and the consequences‹life or death. Details are stitched into this language as necessary, activating its authenticity in our own experience. As the Jungian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, "More can be learned from [fairy tales] about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments, in any society, than from any other type of story within a child's comprehension."

Listening to Hessian neighbors and relatives‹usually women‹who retold the tales as they'd always heard them‹full of feminine principle and maternal voice‹the Grimms maintained the wide, ancient settings of the tales, which they knew to have come from all over the world, effectively setting the standard for a proper science of philology. They transcribed the disparate dialects in which the tales were told into Old High German to make the them accessible to all Europeans‹what Joyce Carol Oates calls the "the sleight-of-hand of elevated language."

So faithful were the Grimms to their storytellers that many readers have since objected to the brutish content the brothers refused to censor. Indeed, the carnage is breathtaking. But much of the cruelest subject matter simply describes life as it really was‹and is. "Of every 1,000 children born in early 18th-century London, almost half died before the age of two," wrote Stephen Inwood in The History of London. "Malnutrition, dirty food, maternal ignorance, poverty, poor hygiene, and overcrowding all contributed." Once solidly middle class, the Grimms themselves had seen three siblings die in childhood. The untimely death of their father, a town clerk, left their mother widowed and impoverished, with six hungry children. When she also died prematurely, Jakob and Wilhelm left university to become librarians, supporting their siblings. Death, misfortune, and abandonment of all kinds were common.

But to leave children in danger on purpose, to be rid of them for good‹surely that would be unusual? Alas, the fear of treachery and desertion has never been illusory. "In 1966," wrote Laila Williamson, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, "the United States had 10,920 murders…. One out of every twenty-two was a child killed by a parent….

Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization…. Colonists brought infanticide to America from England, [and found] the Indians practiced it as well. In 1646…Massachusetts Bay [and three other states] enacted a law where 'a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient years and understanding,' would be brought before the Magistrates…and 'such a son shall be put to death.'…Rather than being an exception, then, [infanticide] has been the rule."

The ghastly penalties in fairy tales are drawn from life, too. Burning alive, for example, was due process of law for medieval witches. So into the fiery oven goes the witch in Hansel. Folklorist Jack Zipes sees this as redressing "the hatred which the [18th century] peasantry felt for the aristocracy, as hoarders and oppressors." In January 1908, during desperate New York rent strikes, The Independent newspaper ran a photograph of Lower East Side tenement children similarly hanging a landlord in effigy. "The man is not a capitalist," ran another caption. "He's showing off as a capitalist….[the tenant's wife] is asking for pity, but he says he is a landlord and doesn't have any." Drawing from life, in perfect fidelity to the Grimms, NYCO's Hansel and Gretel casts Humperdinck's witch as a wealthy Manhattan matron with riches and food enough to ease desperate times, but in the gluttony of her empty heart she consumes yet more‹even the lower class itself, quite literally‹rather than offering succor.

How well we know such insatiable appetite! Even the deeds we think of as "taboo," though heinous, are not so foreign to us (cannibalism, anyone?). In Searching for Mercy Street, Linda Gray Sexton wrote:

I wanted to shove my very own witch into the oven in the small brick colonial we called home…dominated entirely by the devil who plagued my mother with…her admitted desire to kill both her children and herself….

About her mother, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who herself had written this:

Little Plum…I want to bite,I want to chew,I will eat you up.Little child. …. my fritter, my bubbler, my chicken biddy!Oh succulent one, it is but one turn in the roadand I would be a cannibal!…. (Transformations, "Hansel and Gretel")

And in 1974 Anne Sexton threw herself "into the oven" by committing suicide.

Fairy tales, which originated so long ago and far away, are woven into the texture of modern life more intricately than we like to admit. And they carry the same thread of collective wisdom as ever, to nourish and instruct both psyche and soul‹which we disdain at our peril. As we shall see….

Kathleen Watt has known Hansel and Gretel from both sides of the curtain. Having hung up her lederhosen, she now writes frequently on the performing arts.

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