I saw my first opera, “Hansel and Gretel,” a few weeks ago at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Instead of ladies with Viking hats and voices shrill enough to shatter glassware, there were trees wearing suits, an evil witch played by a man dressed up like a deranged, flour-spattered Julia Child, and a gigantic cherry-red tongue holding a 30-pound chocolate cake.
Certainly, creative liberties had been taken with the old Grimm fairy tale. The brightly colored stale gingerbread house we remember, heavily laden with peppermint sticks and gumdrops, had been replaced with the garish, industrial-oven-equipped concrete home of the witch. The scene was littered with lifelike gingerbread mannequins, all in the forms of children, their bodies paralyzed in various pantomimes of horror.
The whole affair was straight out of a nightmare, but when the actors opened their mouths, out rushed perfectly honed voices loud enough to fill the 3,995-seat theater. This opera was, in more than one way, surreal, with odd contemporary German expressionist imagery placed alongside music composed more than 100 years ago. This was before Thomas Edison first publicly displayed the Kinetoscope, the precursor to the film camera — a time that seems incredibly distant from now.
Opera goes under the radar as a sort of impenetrable genre stuck in a mire of outdated-ness. It can be assumed in operatic performances that words, often in another language, are incoherently spilled out in convulsing vibrato, costumes are of the horned variety and convention is expected — we enter the theaters thinking we’ve known most of these stories since we were children, and we dare the story to make itself necessary, wondering how exactly something so old and irrelevant can become relevant once again.
But, as with any type of performance art, there is potential for adaptation and interpretation. There are the written words of the script — the skeleton for the material, which, in “Hansel and Gretel,” had been written between 1891 and 1892. And then there’s the contemporary performance of the words themselves, or what breathes life into the bones. With performance, actors and directors born 100 years or so after the opera’s debut try to engage with a product of the past and re-interpret it, shape it. It’s their job to take something dated and make it contemporary and immediate, perhaps even uncomfortably so.
In “Hansel and Gretel,” the dark fairy tale had been twisted and contorted, making the reality of the tale more urgent — “Hansel and Gretel” is not so much about gluttonous children and their insatiable desire for refined sugars (à la “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) but about insufficiency and hunger itself.
Every moment speaks to hunger and need in this opera. The children traipse through the “forest,” a dark room with leaf-print wallpaper, and they stealthily empty the pockets of trees wearing suits to gather the “berries” that will satiate their empty stomachs, and these corporate trees later attempt to chase and capture the children.
Later, when the children enter the witch’s lair, the witch feeds the children and desperately repeats, “I want you to like me,” which speaks to a sort of loneliness and isolation. When her needs are spurned by the children, she becomes angry and forlorn. She forces a tied-up Hansel onto a steel plate, grinding up éclairs, cakes, puddings and pink liquids in a blender and force feeds Hansel the puree of the food he desires — now a brown clumpy mess — through a funnel and a tube.
And all of these new interpretations just make the traditionally saccharine story more affecting. When the Sandman comes to put the children to sleep, Hansel and Gretel dream of, of all things, food — a 20-foot-long table piled with dishes served by an inhumanly rotund rank of chefs wearing bleached-white clothes, eyes sunk deep into their skulls. The chefs, the embodiment of gluttony, serve the children. The insatiable appetites of those who over-indulge in food in turn serve the children’s similarly bottomless stomachs, perpetuating this cycle of need feeding need.
We connect with this composition of the story. Taking themes that were relevant a century ago and making them contemporary is not a matter of altering the substance of the themes themselves (hunger, after all, is still hunger, even years later), but re-packaging these ideas in ways that are relatable, not in just making places recognizable — the sugary walls of a gingerbread house turned steel and mortar — but in presenting desires as relevant and motivations as contemporary.
Opera is affecting because of simple themes that are twisted and contorted into visuals and stage sets that pull one’s mind to dusty areas — what if the unfairness of the economy were pulled into this production by the suit-wearing trees? What if the need for human affirmation and the constancy of rejection were pulled into the grotesque, yet oddly relatable, witch? What if the ominousness of industry and impersonal production are criticized in the bleak concrete house?
Opera and other performance art reflect life in the past (from decades to centuries ago) alongside life as we know it. The thread that binds the past to the present is, in some ways, tightened during performance, engaging themes that are, if not timeless, then relevant to us from decade to decade. Performance twists and turns old concepts in the light, presenting them in ways that have never been seen before.