The Glenn Gould School: Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel. Brent Krysa (director). At Mazzoleni Hall, Saturday.
At first read as thrilling entertainment among mothers after putting their children to sleep, the Brothers Grimm tales were later adapted as bedtime stories for kids. Similarly, an adaptation for young audiences, Brent Krysa’s production of Hansel and Gretel is a shortened version translated into English of Engelbert Humperdinck’s German opera of the same name. Performed in the Royal Conservatory of Music’s historic Ihnatowycz Hall, the Glenn Gould School’s performance of Hansel and Gretel on November 18, was described by more than one audience member as “pure fun.”
But Brent Krysa’s adaptation left me wondering, was it all just fun or were there other underlying messages?
The Problematic State of Music Education in Canada
Engelbert Humperdinck’s original, Hänsel und Gretel, is the Nutcracker of Germany, produced every holiday season for audiences of all ages. It’s somewhat odd then that an opera already marketed to children in Europe must be severely adapted for younger audiences here. Plenty may say that this reflects the problematic state of musical education in Canada, but this can’t be all there is to it. Krysa’s production doesn’t merely abridge Humperdinck’s, but differs from the original Grimm fairy tale in a way that Canadian children will recognize. But this makes me ask, what exactly does this production symbolise to them?
Despite Krysa’s attempt to focus the narrative on the siblings’ teamwork and cooperation instead of reiterating its origins as a cautionary tale about trusting strangers, his most interesting changes drew attention to the opera’s other characters. The most refreshing updates included the Dew Fairy as a 1960s housewife spraying an aerosol can of mist, and the Sandman as a humorous sneezing tenor accidentally spewing sleep dust on the children.
A Troubling Adaptation
However, a more troubling update was the recasting of the Witch as a man, performed by baritone Kjel Erickson to fits of the audience’s laughter. The Witch and her cohort, some male and female, were all dressed in black with round spectacles, long skirts, and shawls, leaving their genders unclear until they opened their mouths. Perhaps the blurring of gender and choosing a baritone to highlight the cliché look of an ugly witch was the point.
After getting rid of the Sandman and suggestively, almost sensuously, smelling him, the Witch comically lures the children into the house. Although representing the Witch as a man in drag, or maybe even a trans-person, suggests an interesting homoerotic explanation as to why the witch shows so much interest in Hansel, it seems that Krysa neglected to consider all the repercussions of this choice.
Although a great supporter of rewriting queer characters into traditional plotlines especially for younger audiences, I was left troubled by Krysa’s Witch. In the Grimm tale, the Witch is a warning not to trust appearances because someone might be evil or even different on the inside. To perform this character as queer, who at the end of the story is burned in an oven thereby setting everything right, re-inscribes the stereotype that queer persons have something dangerous or not normal to hide. I’m left unsettled by the fact that this production did not try to counteract this stereotype, and that this queer representation was staged for children.
A Promising Performance by the Singers at Glenn Gould
Despite my hesitations toward queer representation in the production, Krysa challenged the students of the Glenn Gould School to bring the performance to life. Hansel and Gretel, performed by mezzo-soprano Rachel Miller and soprano Kendra Dyck, not only had to sing, but also fight, dance, and execute a complex hand clapping game, reminiscent of the playground game “I went to a Chinese restaurant.” Soprano Kateryna Khartova performed the short, but challenging role of the ’60s dew fairy with elegance, grace, and a little bit of very endearing cheekiness, and Tenor Ross Mortimer was charming as the Sandman. Another short, but no less challenging role was the Mother, sung powerfully by Jonelle Sills. Although their singing still needs some polish, it will be interesting to see where these singers’ careers will go once they graduate.
Intent vs. Representation
Although Krysa did brush the dust off this piece making it exciting and accessible to young audiences in Canada, it remains to be seen at what cost. I do want to point out that the program note did not explain why the Witch was cast a man. Perhaps, the Witch was performed by a Baritone to make the witch “look” or “sound” ugly––although this also implies that gender ambiguity is disturbing or wrong––or maybe the Glenn Gould School did not have another mezzo-soprano available for the role.
Having said this, in the pre-opera chat Krysa said that staging an opera is like cracking a code. If people understand the opera, then it is cracked. He concluded saying that he prefers not to write a note explaining his vision because the performance should speak for itself. From this angle, is it not possible then that my observations about negative queer representation, or any opinion of the performance that night, are a part of the production’s code even if they were not originally intended? Then, the question remains, does this production reinstate queer stereotypes?
[Corection: Nov. 21, 2017 — A previous version incorrectly stated the production premiered at the Canadian Opera Company’s “Opera for Young Audiences” national tour. The production has no affiliation with the COC.]