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Opera Idaho Sweetens Up Hansel and Gretel

Family friendly opera debuts at Boise Contemporary Theater

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Take two kids with an appetite for sweets, add in a witch with an appetite for children, then throw the whole thing into a hot oven and you've got a recipe for Hansel and Gretel, a dark fairy tale classic by the Brothers Grimm published in 1812.

In the early 1890s, the familiar story about the brother and sister's misadventures was transformed into an opera by composer Engelbert Humperdinck. And beginning Friday, Dec. 28, Opera Idaho will put on a gentler version of the opera using a minimal cast--six actors, the Opera Idaho Children's Choruses and Sean Rogers on the piano.

"This rendition is for kids and families. It's kinder and more traditional," said Mark Junkert, general director at Opera Idaho. "The opera was originally not for kids; it's a heavy story with oppression and poverty."

In a classic technique called a pants role, in which a female is used to portray a young or adolescent boy, soprano Melina Pyron will play Hansel. Amanda Gardner-Porter will portray Gretel, while the father and mother will be played by real-life husband and wife Jason and Michele Detwiler. Suzanne Hansen will play the Witch, and Victoria Arriero will be both the Sandman and Dewman.

Opera Idaho's version--about 70 minutes--is much shorter than the original and has been translated into English. In this performance, Hansel and Gretel become lost in the woods at night. The next morning, they make their way to a magnificent house made of gingerbread, candies and other sweets, where they meet the Witch, who turns kids into gingerbread cookies. In the abridged story, many of the darker elements have been removed--there's less about the devastating poverty in which Hansel and Gretel's family lives and some of the scarier parts involving the Witch have been omitted.

The opera will be shown during the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve, deviating from Opera Idaho's usual winter performance schedule. For the past few years, Opera Idaho has put on Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors in early December. Junkert noticed that the Christmas season tends to bring a lull in the local artistic calendar. He hopes that by offering performances during this time, more families will be drawn to the opera and more children will be able to experience a new art form.

Opera Idaho selected Hansel and Gretel this season for a number of reasons. Junkert explained that the melodies in the opera are ones that many might not know but were popular in the past. He also enjoys the folk song elements that are woven into the score.

Soprano Gardner-Porter will play Gretel. She recently made the switch from mezzo-soprano--which usually sings secondary roles--to soprano after working with a new voice coach.

"I had Mark [Junkert] come sit in on one of my lessons and I sang one of Gretel's songs for him," she said. "It's exciting because it's my first big soprano role."

Gardner-Porter, who came to Boise a year and half ago, is looking forward to the performance.

"It's such a good show; the music is really interesting and the story's really dark--they're writing a lot out. ... Once you get to where you learn [the music], you get to play, to do make-believe again," Gardner-Porter said.

Mezzo-soprano Hansen is just as thrilled to perform as the Witch.

"It's really lush, rich, yummy music--kind of like a Wagner-light. But Humperdinck keeps the story going," Hansen said. "And cackling is actually written into the score. I love that the Witch's mood changes every 16 to 18 measures, from lullaby to menacing to deranged, like with the tone of talking about tea but she's really talking about eating children."

Hansen also loves the antagonism that flows through the opera.

"Kids want to play, not do chores. I don't know any kid who can't relate to mom's nagging," said Hansen, mother of five. "As the opera progresses, there's really scary stuff. They deal with the Witch; they work together to defeat her. It's important for kids to see that they can have power and can deal with hard things."

Pyron, also singing mezzo-soprano, is anticipating portraying Hansel.

"It's always fun to play the boy's role for me, because I was quite a tomboy growing up," said Pyron. "Hansel is also really enjoyable because the music is gorgeous and complex, and the story has always been one that appealed to me. Who can resist getting to eat all those candies and goodies at the ginger bread house?"

But the story holds a deeper meaning beyond the candied facade, which appeals to Pyron.

"It seems like the story is telling us that you can't escape your problems by painting a pretty picture on them and living in denial. The alternative to dealing with the reality of their situation is far worse than the poverty they were experiencing," Pyron said.

Performances of Hansel and Gretel won't take place in Opera Idaho's usual venue, the Egyptian Theatre. Boise Contemporary Theater, which boasts only 231 seats, will host the opera for this production. Reducing the number of seats per performance means that the production will run for three days rather than two. In January, the company will also perform Hansel and Gretel in area schools as part of an outreach program.

"It will be interesting to see it in a smaller venue. People tend to be very last-minute when buying tickets, so we won't really know until the few weeks before the performances how many tickets were sold," said Junkert.

Hopefully, the smaller venue and cast will offer an intimacy that is deliciously digestible for both children and adults.