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Theatre / Hansel and Gretel (1893)

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"When past bearing is our grief,
Then 'tis Heaven will send relief!"

Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel in the original German) is a three-act opera composed by Engelbert Humperdinck from a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette. It is based on the Fairy Tale of the same name.

The titular characters are the son and daughter of an impoverished couple, Peter and Gertrud. After one too many shenanigans results in the loss of the milk they were supposed to have for supper, Gertrud sends Hansel and Gretel off to forage for food. A dismayed Peter informs her that the Gingerbread Witch steals children and turns them into gingerbread in her oven, and the parents set off to find their children.

Hansel and Gretel wander around the woods but are protected through the night by the Sandman and the Dewman, a pair of benevolent nature spirits. The next day, they happen upon the cottage of the Gingerbread Witch and wind up nibbling on it. The Witch catches the two, fattens Hansel up, and turns Gretel into her servant. However, the pair are able to throw her into her own oven and free the children she had previously captured. They are reunited with their parents, who remind them that God's grace delivers in times of need.

The opera first premiered in Weimar, Germany in 1893 and is frequently performed around the winter holiday season to this day.


  • Adaptational Heroism: In this opera, Hansel and Gretel's Evil Stepmother is changed to their more sympathetic birth mother. She's still very hard on her children, but only because she's exhausted from their impoverished lifestyle. She does genuinely love her kids, is frightened when she realizes they could be in danger, and accompanies her husband to go searching for them.
  • Adaptational Job Change: The father becomes a broom-maker rather than a woodcutter, allowing his occupation to be symbolically linked to the Wicked Witch's activities.
  • Adaptational Personality Change:
    • In the Brothers Grimm tale, Hansel is the more dominant, resourceful sibling, whose cleverness protects both himself and Gretel from danger and who reassures and looks after his sister, while Gretel is more vulnerable and Prone to Tears, until her Character Development at the climax where she's the one who defeats the Witch. In the opera, Gretel is the more dominant sibling, who has more solo music to sing, and more of a Cheerful Child who teases and reassures the sometimes-sulky Hansel, while Hansel is the more impulsive sibling whose actions tend to get them both into trouble. That said, Gretel still has moments of terror where Hansel comforts and advises her, and Hansel becomes more resourceful while imprisoned by the Witch. When the time comes to push the Witch into the oven, they do it together.
    • The Father in the original tale is a weak-willed Henpecked Husband, who loves his children but gives in to his wife's demands that they abandon them. In the opera, he's a hardy, cheerful optimist, albeit with a fondness for alcohol that's Played for Laughs, and a Papa Wolf who's willing to search the woods day and night for his children rather than let the Witch catch them.
  • Adaptational Timespan Change: In the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel are lost in the woods for three days before they find the Witch's house, and are the Witch's prisoners for a month. In the opera, they spend just one night in the woods, find the Witch's house the next morning, and spend less than an hour with the Witch before they manage to kill her.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The premise of Hansel and Gretel going is expanded upon, and the second act of their adventures in the woods prior to finding the witch's cabin is entirely original.
  • Adapted Out:
    • The opera cuts the famous episodes from the fairy tale where Hansel first leaves a trail of pebbles, then a trail of breadcrumbs to guide himself and Gretel home from the woods. note  It also cuts the episode where a duck carries them home across a river.
    • Hansel and Gretel don't find chests of pearls and jewels in the Witch's house to end their family's poverty the way they do in the fairy tale. They do find plenty of food for the taking, though, and their Father already had a big windfall of cash at the beginning, so the family still won't be hungry again for a very long time.
  • Alto Villainess: The Witch is often played by a contralto or mezzo-soprano, but she has just as often been played by a male singer in drag.
  • Bowdlerize: Instead of knowingly sending them out into danger, their mother just sends them out to pick berries in exasperation after they accidentally spill a jug of milk that was the only food item left in the house; then they stay too long playing in the forest and get lost when it gets dark. The opera also has the witch turn children into gingerbread instead of straight-up eating their flesh, has her turned into gingerbread herself instead of just burning to death, and has all her previous child victims come back to life when she dies.
  • Bookends: The show opens and closes with Father's statement of religious faith.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: By the time the curtain rises, Father is already on his way home with a windfall of cash, a bag of decadent groceries, and news that their troubles are over. Unfortunately, his wife and children don't know it yet, and he makes it home about ninety seconds too late.
  • Dream Ballet: After the Sandman puts Hansel and Gretel to sleep, a group of guardian angels guide them in their dreams via ballet.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: The Witch turns into a giant gingerbread and is devoured by her resurrected victims.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Witch is cheerful and affectionate toward Hansel and Gretel, both before and after she reveals that she intends to eat them.
  • Innocent Soprano:
    • Although Children Are Innocent is played straight with both of the leads, the soprano Gretel is much more virtuous and pious than her mezzo brother Hansel. Hansel constantly drags her into mischief and she follows only reluctantly.
    • The Sand Fairy and the Dew Fairy, pure and all-loving spirits of nature, are sung by coloratura sopranos.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Nearly all productions have Gretel wear her hair in pigtails, since they help to make the adult soprano look more like a little girl.
  • Gratuitous Latin: The witch chants, "Hocus pocus, bonus jocus, malus locus, hocus pocus" as part of her spell. Though "hocus pocus" is meaningless, the rest actually translates as "good joke, bad place."
  • Guardian Angel: Gretel's "Evening Benediction" sings of fourteen guardian angels at bedtime:
    When at night I go to sleep,
    Fourteen angels watch do keep:
    Two my head are guarding,
    Two my feet are guiding,
    Two are on my right hand,
    Two are on my left hand,
    Two who warmly cover,
    Two who o'er me hover,
    Two to whom 'tis given
    To guide my steps to Heaven.
  • Hidden Depths: Father may be a drunk who isn't doing very well at providing for his family at the moment, but he is clearly the more pious of the two parents, with his statement of religious faith being a recurring mantra in their home.
  • Hollywood Pudgy: According to the Witch, Gretel is "tender and round," just right for cooking and eating right away, whereas Hansel still needs some fattening up. The two singers' actual builds vary from production to production.
  • It's Probably Nothing: Twice while the children are busily taking pieces off the Gingerbread House and eating them, a voice from inside demands to know who's been nibbling at her house. The children think for a moment, and they declare it was the wind, the heavenly child.
  • Just Desserts: The witch owns a magical oven which bakes children into gingerbread. Of course, the witch ends up getting pushed into it, and not only does this restore all the gingerbread children to life, an impressive piece of witch-shaped gingerbread is brought out at the finale.
  • Leitmotif upon Death: Happy example. The Wicked Witch's demise is immediately celebrated with a jubilant waltz arrangement of her motifs, and the gingerbread she was turned into arrives in the final scene with an utterly triumphant version of the broomstick motif.
  • Lighter and Softer: In comparison to the original tale.
    • The siblings' horrible stepmother is now a sympathetic biological mother who's just tired of living in poverty, and while she still gives her children an earful like any strict parent, she does genuinely care for them.
    • The Witch doesn't bake children alive anymore; she just magically turns them into gingerbread. She herself also turns into gingerbread instead of being burned alive, and all of her victims come back to life after she is defeated.
  • Magic Wand: The Wicked Witch paralyzes the titular children with the powers of her wand and a rhyming incantation, a variation of which she later uses to remobilize Gretel. Gretel manages to steal the wand for the moment and free Hansel with the latter spell, which is used once again after they kill the witch to fully reanimate the gingerbread children.
  • Mirror Character: Father/Gretel and Mother/Hansel when it comes to religion. The former two draw comfort from the knowledge that God is watching out for their struggling family, while the latter two react without much appreciation when reminded of it.
  • Name and Name: The show is titled Hansel and Gretel after its two protagonists, just like the fairy tale source material.
  • Named by the Adaptation:
    • The unnamed witch from the fairy tale introduces herself Rosine Leckermaul in the German libretto. The multiple layers of the name's significance have proven difficult to translate comprehensively within the proper sung meter, and any number of efforts at English translation have been made in different versions: Rosina Rubylips, Rosina Dainty-Mouth, Rosina Sugarface, Rosina Sweetie-Tooth, Rosina Tasty-Snout, Rosina Lickspittle...
    • The libretto's stage directions give the parents' names as Peter and Gertrud, although their names aren't mentioned by the characters.
  • Our Ogres Are Different: English versions will sometimes translate the witch villainess "Knusperhexe" as "gobbling ogress", resulting in a very witchy-acting ogre. note 
  • Parents as People:
    • When Mother finds the children horsing around and the milk she was relying on is lost, she starts screaming at them in frustration, says some terrible things, and drives them out into the forest. However, her desperation, fear, and exasperation are understood by the viewer and she remains a sympathetic character. Her horror is palpable when she realizes they are now in danger, and the reunion at the end is a happy one void of any reference to her first scene.
    • Father is a heavy drinker, which is Played for Laughs, and in the German libretto he almost hits his wife with a broom in his Papa Wolf anger when he learns she sent the children into the woods.
  • Precision F-Strike: The severity of Mother's exclamatory reaction to the broken milk jug varies depending on the translation. English versions may stick to something completely innocuous like "Oh, no!" or "Gracious!", but you're just as likely to get into the realm of "Damn it!" or "Jesus!" (It's "Jesus!" in the original German.)
  • The Sandman: The Sandman appears to Hansel and Gretel in the forest, signaling that it is time for the children to sing their evening prayer and go to sleep (though a Dream Ballet ensues). The Sandman's morning counterpart, the Dewman, appears to wake them up again with a very similar song as the curtain goes up on the third act.
  • Villain Song: "Witch's Aria", sung by the Witch. Depending on the production, she either sings it as she flies off on her broom, or while she's preparing Hansel for dinner.

Alternative Title(s): Hansel And Gretel