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Austin Lyric Opera performs updated 'Hansel and Gretel'

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Yes, it's still a fairy tale.

But the operatic version of 'Hansel and Gretel' - which Austin Lyric Opera opens this weekend for a four-performance run at the Long Center- isn't the Disney-fied version of an allegorical tale most would assume.

Forget adorable cartoon kids frolicking through a bucolic forest. Forget a charming gingerbread house with cute frosting trim and candy decorations.

No, this 'Hansel and Gretel' - which was created by the New York City Opera - puts the Brothers Grimm fairy tale in 1893 New York during the so-called Gilded Age when rapid industrial and economic growth and a bursting population of new immigrants made for an urban landscape characterized by out-sized opulence contrasted against desperate poverty.

Hansel and Gretel are German immigrant children living in a gritty tenement on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Their father is not a woodcutter, but rather, a scavenging peddler. And when the two children are sent out in search of supper for the starving family, they wander the streets, ending up in Central Park where they get lost as they pick strawberries. But instead of being captured by a witch, they are lured to a luxurious Fifth Avenue mansion by an elegantly dressed matron - a beautiful woman who is a member of the privileged social group the Daughters of the American Revolution.

David Grabarkewitz , resident director of the New York City Opera who is in Austin to direct the ALO production, says the reimagining of the Brothers Grimm story as an immigrant's tale plays convincingly. (The production features a contemporary English translation of the original German libretto.)

'It was a terrifying time in New York,' Grabarkewitz says. 'You can't imagine anything more overwhelming than arriving in New York via Ellis Island, not speaking the language, not having any money. My great-grandfather arrived in New York from Poland about the same time (as this production is situated). I tried to imagine how frightened he must have felt.'

That the year this 'Hansel and Gretel' takes place is 1893 is no coincidence. It's the year the opera premiered in Weimar, Germany.

German composer Engelbert Humperdinck penned his score based on a dramatized version of the folk tale that his sister, Adelheid Wette, had created for her children to perform. But Wette softened the original version, which is one of the grimmer ones the folk tale-collecting Brothers Grimm published in the early 1800s.

Indeed, the original version is something that would make Hannibal Lecter grin. The children of a desperately poor woodcutter, Hansel and Gretel have an evil stepmother who convinces her husband that their only hope for self-preservation during the midst of a national famine is to abandon the children in the woods. The father kowtows to his wife's wishes. And Hansel and Gretel are left to be lost in the woods. They come upon a tempting gingerbread house but are only too soon imprisoned by a child-eating witch and subjected to weeks of imprisonment while she tries to fatten them up. The lucky moment comes only when Gretel has the wherewithal to push the witch into a roaring oven meant to roast the children. After a long journey Hansel and Gretel return home to find that their evil stepmother is dead and their father is regretful.

'Well,' Grabarkewitz explains, 'the story was originally meant as a cautionary tale for both children and adults.'

Humperdinck and his sister created a kinder, gentler version of that original dark tale, something that would be suitable for children. Wette added the characters of the friendly Dew Fairy and the gentle Sandman as well as a chorus of angels. And the child-hating stepmother is replaced by a relatively benevolent mother.

For his part, Humperdinck - who had been an assistant to composer Richard Wagner, the great German romanticist - employs plenty of leitmotifs, the melodic phrases that act as specific musical identifiers for certain characters. Humperdinck also inserts traditional German children's songs in the lush, swirling and very narrative score.

'Hansel and Gretel' was an instant hit, as it were, after its premiere, which was conducted by none other than famed composer Richard Strauss. (The next year an up-and-coming Gustav Mahler conducted it.) The opera - which is just under two hours long - quickly became standard repertoire for lyric opera companies in the German-speaking world. And within a few decades, it had been translated into more than a dozen languages.

The opera almost instantly became associated with Christmas, and on Christmas Day in 1931, it was the first complete radio broadcast performance by the Metropolitan Opera. (Decades later in 1981, again on Christmas Day, the opera was telecast live on the PBS series 'Live from the Met.')

But despite Humperdinck's attempts to lighten the Brothers Grimm's naturally grim style, the creators of the current production just couldn't resist slipping the scary right back in.

'The fairy tale is often thought to be a simple fantasy, something child-friendly,' says Grabarkewitz. 'But it's not - not really. There's always something very dark going on.'

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Hansel and Gretel'

What: An opera in three acts performed with one intermission. Running time with intermission approximately two hours. In English and German with English supertitles.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday , April 28, April 30; 3 p.m. May 2

Where: Long Center, 711 W. Riverside Drive.

Cost: $29-$133

Info:www.austinlyricopera.org

No, the other Engelbert

You have to forgive people nowadays for doing a little quizzical double-take when they hear the name Engelbert Humperdinck. Composer or pop singer?

The German composer Engelbert Humperdinck was born in 1854, and for better or worse his fame rests almost entirely on his opera 'Hansel and Gretel.' He wrote six other operas, and other works, but he's remembered for little else besides 'Hansel and Gretel.' He died in 1921.

Jump ahead a few decades and a struggling British crooner named Arnold George Dorsey took his manager's suggestion and in the mid-1960s changed his name to that of the German composer. Engelbert Humperdinck the pop singer is best-known for his chart-topping hit 'Release Me.'

Conflicting information surrounds the issue of whether it was Engelbert Humperdinck the composer or the pop star who was the inspiration for the character of Prince Humperdinck in William Goldman's 1973 novel, 'The Princess Bride,' which was subsequently made into a movie.