The story of “Hansel and Gretel” is a familiar one: the hungry children of a poor woodcutter are lost in the woods when they stumble upon a house made of gingerbread and sweets, enticing to their eyes and empty bellies.
The house belongs to a witch who lures the children inside and captures them, intending to fatten them up so she can roast and eat them later. But Hansel and Gretel outwit the witch (who perishes in her own fiery oven), and the children stuff their pockets with the witch’s jewels and treasure before finding their way home.
Like most folklore and fairy tales, “Hansel and Gretel” has been adapted many times, in many languages, each version differing slightly from the next. This week at Light House Studio, the Charlottesville-based Victory Hall Opera adapts Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera Hänsel und Gretel into an experimental version of the story, one that considers modern anxieties about the self and the other, about innocence lost and awareness found.
Inspired by the Halloween zeitgeist that captures imaginations at this time of year, VHO wanted to stage an opera with “genuinely scary material” for its fall production, says VHO artistic director Miriam Gordon-Stewart. Hänsel und Gretel was one choice. Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium is another.
Written and set in the wake of World War II, The Medium is a two-act tragic opera about a fraudulent psychic (Baba) who ropes her daughter (Monica) and a mute servant (Toby) into leading grieving clients through fake séances. During one séance, Baba has an experience she cannot explain; it terrifies her and drives her mad.
Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson, VHO director of music, noticed similarities between the two operas: Both are fairy tales with a boy and a girl as lead characters. “A fairy tale has never really been about ghosts or witches. It’s always been about the ‘other,’” says Gordon-Stewart. Another point of convergence: Both could be set in the woods—in our woods.
Gordon-Stewart and Patterson weave strands of each opera together into a single production called The Forgotten, drawing the first part from Hänsel und Gretel and the second from The Medium. The actors who sing Hansel and Gretel (Patterson, a mezzo-soprano, and Nancy Allen Lundy, a soprano based in New York state) also sing Toby and Monica, respectively, and other actors double up on roles as well.
In The Forgotten, Hansel and Gretel are overprotected, privileged, smartphone-obsessed private school kids living in a luxury housing development on the outskirts of Charlottesville. When they’re sent into the nearby woods, it’s the first time they’re out of their highly-controlled environment: They are “completely mystified” by being in nature and being unsupervised, says Gordon-Stewart.
In the production, the woods serves as a meeting place for two seemingly disparate worlds. The idea is that if you walk through the woods of Charlottesville, you might end up in the county, and possibly meet someone who has a very different experience of living in Virginia, says Gordon-Stewart. “I think we’re all aware of the fact that Charlottesville is a bubble within a very different culture…and I think there are a lot of fears, from both sides of the border, about that,” she says.
Lundy, who sings Gretel and Monica, appreciates the “very, very creative” approach VHO has taken in exploring this theme that has both immediate and global implications. She relishes the depth the narrative gives to her characters, particularly Monica, who, Lundy says can come off as “trite, girly, and silly.” In The Forgotten, Lundy feels Monica’s devastating arias so deeply she says she barely has to do any acting.
VHO has also incorporated elements of the Charlottesville area’s own (and true) fraudulent psychic story into The Forgotten. For a while, Sandra Stevenson Marks claimed to be a psychic and offered “Readings by Catherine,” including palm, tarot, astrological, and spiritual readings, from a rented house on Route 29. She knowingly stole more than $2 million from five people, pleaded guilty to the charges brought against her, and in November 2016 was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Gordon-Stewart wanted to add a bit of “genuine magic” and a truly supernatural atmosphere to The Forgotten, and so VHO asked Light House Studio filmmakers—who are about the same age as the Hansel, Gretel, Monica, and Toby characters—to create films about the woods that are part of the production, along with the score from the live chamber orchestra.
Just as The Forgotten explores fears of difference, the unfamiliar and the unknown, so does VHO. The company does not deliver expected opera performances, says Gordon-Stewart, and that’s the point. “In order for audiences to really engage, to really genuinely feel something in the theater, they have to be disarmed,” she says. “They have to experience something unexpected, and if I’m giving them what they expect, then there is part of them that is not awake.”