Virtually everyone knows of Hansel and Gretel, the two children who get lost in the woods, find a house made of candy, and wind up having to escape from a witch. It’s been told in countless versions through the ages, from the Brothers Grimm’s creepy fairy tale to children's cartoons to an ill-advised, Jeremy Renner-led movie. One of the most bewitching (see what we did there) adaptations is Engelbert Humperdinck’s. Its score is laced with vast depth and beauty, evocative of the German woods in which it takes place.
Houston Grand Opera’s digital production of the opera, which runs on HGO.org and Marquee TV for a full month after it premieres on May 28, is about to turn all that on its head. The fully digital production, designed specifically for the screen and conducted by Patrick Summers, combines live action singing with animated backgrounds, designed by award-winning visual artist Hannah Wasileski.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” Wasileski tells Houstonia. “I think that’s one of these sort of silver linings of the pandemic, that we had to think outside the box as far as performance goes. Okay, we’re doing this for the screen. How can we reimagine it?”
The answer is that director Lileana Blain-Cruz conceived the idea that this Hansel and Gretel takes place in bayou country instead of the traditional German Woods. That led Wasileski to create a series of backgrounds and animations that evoke mysterious marshes and ethereal waterscapes.
“It’s translating the German forest and taking us into something that’s very American,” she explains. “And then, imagining the mystery and magic of the bayou. It is a very mysterious sort of landscape and geography. But the other thing is, we know this as a storybook and a fairy tale, and this is an homage to that.”
Wasileski says she “went to a very storybook” place in illustrating the opera, from the greens of the bayou itself to the vivid reds and candy colors of the scenes in the witch’s house. And she hopes the new design as well as Humperdinck’s famous score, which she says continues to deliver new elements in its themes and phrases no matter how many times she’s heard it and resonates with newcomers and opera lovers alike.
“I would love for a little kid to see this opera and for it to excite them about the world of opera,” she adds, “for it to be a point of accessibility.”
Thru June 27. Free. Online. More info and registration at houstongrandopera.org.