Corey Weaver

Magical “Hansel and Gretel” Just in Time for the Holidays

Last seen on the War Memorial Opera House stage nearly two decades ago, the popular fairy-tale opera returns in an “enchanting” (The Times, UK) new co-production with London’s Royal Opera by director and production designer Antony McDonald. Humperdinck’s sweeping score will be conducted by Christopher Franklin and sung in English translation by a cast including mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Hansel, Heidi Stober as Gretel and Robert Brubaker as the Witch.

Readers may expect an exclusive interview with Ms. Cooke in the coming weeks. 

Hansel and Gretel is set to a libretto by the Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette and follows the adventures of two hungry children who enter an enchanted forest looking for food, only to find themselves facing a sinister threat. Based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, Humperdinck’s opera utilizes an orchestra of Wagnerian proportions (65 instrumentalists) and sophisticated harmonies that lend heroic grandeur to this story of childhood innocence.

McDonald is a Royal Designer for Industry, a title he was awarded in his native UK to celebrate his decades of experience designing and directing theater and opera. His work includes Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (Nederlandse Reisopera), Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (Bolshoi Opera) and Tristan und Isolde (Opéra National du Rhin).

About his production of Hansel and Gretel, McDonald said: “I have tried to approach it as a simple fairy story. It is set in Germany, but it is not realistic—it is magical! I have allowed the themes of the piece—hunger, abusive parents, greed and, finally, good triumphing over evil—to play themselves rather than be heavily underlined. I appreciate that this is an opera that very often is the first that many children see and therefore wanted it to be visually arresting and engaging, creating a balance of fear and delight.”

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has earned acclaim for a wide variety of roles with San Francisco Opera, including Mary in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (2013), Anna in Berlioz’s Les Troyens (2015), Magdalene in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2015) and, most recently, the title role of Handel’s Orlando (2019). The San Francisco Chronicle said, “Anytime you add Cooke into the mix, there’s a whole new level of magic involved.” Her portrayal of Hansel is the first in a series of high-profile, Bay Area engagements this season including performances with the Violins of Hope, an artist-in-residence engagement with the San Francisco Symphony and a return to San Francisco Opera in summer 2020 to portray Laurene Powell Jobs in Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

Earning praise last season for her appearances with San Francisco Opera as Angelica in Handel’s Orlando and Zdenka in Strauss’ Arabella, soprano Heidi Stober brings her “gorgeous coloratura technique and a plush sound” (San Francisco Examiner) to the role of Gretel. The American soprano, who was named one of Opera News’ “18 to Watch” in 2018, has won acclaim in an array of roles in works by Handel, Mozart, Massenet, Verdi, Jerome Kern and Stephen Sondheim on the War Memorial Opera House stage since making her Company debut in 2010.

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens will add Gertrude, Hansel and Gretel’s mother, to her San Francisco Opera credits, which include Cassandra in Les Troyens and Klytaemnestra in Strauss’ Elektra. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who made an acclaimed Company debut as Orest in Elektra in 2017, returns as the father, Peter. Tenor Robert Brubaker will perform the Witch, a role he has also portrayed at the Metropolitan Opera. San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Natalie Image and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon are the Dew Fairy and Sandman, respectively.

The lush score, with its many memorable musical moments including the overture, “Witches’ Ride,” “Evening Prayer” and “Dream Pantomime,” will be conducted by Christopher Franklin.

Based in Lucca, Italy, the American maestro made his Company debut in 2017 with Puccini’s Turandot and returned last year to conduct the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows in concert. Ian Robertson prepares the children’s chorus which is comprised of members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Artistic Director) and San Francisco Boys Chorus (Eric Choate, Artistic Director).

Joining McDonald in bringing the production to the stage are a creative team made up of associate stage director Danielle Urbas, associate designer Ricardo Pardo, lighting designer Lucy Carter, revival lighting designer Neill Brinkworth and choreographer Lucy Burge, all in their Company debuts.

Hansel and Gretel production by Antony McDonald (©Cory Weaver);

Sung in English with English supertitles, the eight performances of Hansel and Gretel are scheduled for November 15 (7:30pm), November 17 (2pm), November 21 (7:30pm), November 23 (7:30pm), November 30 (2pm), December 1 (2pm), December 3 (7:30pm) and December 7 (7:30pm), 2019.