July 20, 2008

Hansel and Gretel Head South

New Zealand Opera's latest production, Hansel and Gretel, will be hitting a town near you during the next few weeks. Arts reporter Nicola Kean catches up with director Michael Hurst and New Zealand's favourite mezzo-soprano Helen Medlyn. IT'S like going to a play with music, is how opera singer Helen Medlyn describes her latest show Hansel and Gretel.

Directed by entertainment jack-of-all-trades Michael Hurst, the opera, contrary to stereotypes, promises to be accessible, fun and just a little bit scary.

The NBR New Zealand Opera company's somewhat stripped back production of German composer Englebert Humperdinck's late 19th century opera is making its way around the country.

For Hurst, usually found in front of a camera or in a theatre, making the leap to directing opera was not as difficult as predicted.

"It is my first opera, but on the other hand it's not that different to working with Shakespeare," he said.

"It was very straight forward. I've always believed that when you do a production of anything, you're all there for the production. You're all on the same page.

"It's as easy to motivate sung lines in the same way that you motivate spoken lines." But opera-goers can expect something a little bit different about Hurst's Hansel and Gretel.

For starters, it's been translated from the original German so viewers can give the action all their attention. The whole production has also been stripped back, relying on the singers, the music and limited props to tell the story.

Unlike the usual "park and bark" of opera singers, Medlyn -- who plays the dual roles of the children's mother and the paedocidal witch -- said the singers have been forced to do the storytelling themselves.

"He's given us nowhere to hide and I've loved the challenge. The onus is on us to tell the story ..." The story itself is not much different from the classic Grimm original.

Brother and sister Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest by their angry mother to scavenge for food.

They are abducted by an evil witch, who is eventually tricked out of killing and eating the unfortunate siblings.

Into that well-known story, Hurst has injected a deeper psychological subtext about families and, in particular, mothers.

The opera tells the story of an unhappy family -- a drunkard father unable to provide for his children, a mother at her wits end, and two children caught in the middle.

Medlyn's suggestion to play both the witch and mother is more than just a casting coincidence.

"The nurturing, loving mother who loves them has been turned into, by the time she becomes the witch, the nasty mother who wants to bake you in an oven and eat you.

It's quite a scary psychological transformation for children," Hurst said.

"They trick the witch so that they put her in the oven, thereby killing the awful devouring mother ... and once they've done that they can be reunited and happy -- because that's how fairy stories end." The mother-as-witch scenario has influenced the costuming for the Medlyn as the mother, with a beehive wig and 1960s frock, which has been turned to rags by the time the witch appears.

The choice 1960s-style cos-tuming was deliberate, Hurst said, as a hat-tip to his own childhood.

"When I was a child money was our problem, like a lot of Kiwi kids growing up. We weren't wealthy, money was the problem, and whenever there wasn't money things were tough," he said.

"He comes home drunk, they've got no money, they're desperate, they blame each other, there's violence -- that sounds so bloody modern to me." For Medlyn, who also grew up in the 1960s, the "keeping up appearances" ideal plays out strongly in the opera.

"In the '60s, we made sure we looked nice, even though there's nothing on the table when you get home.

"Sometimes parents just fly off the handle. Michael wanted that to be as real as possible ... We don't want to pussyfoot around things." But while this might all sound quite scary, it's all balanced by moments of beauty, Medlyn said.

"It is darker, and I don't mind that ... There's still beautiful, magical moments." Hurst wholeheartedly agrees.

"It's a family opera because it would delight adults and children.

I'm just aiming it at the general public in an accessible, exciting, fresh kind of way. I think I've succeeded in quite a lot of that, basically because people aren't used to seeing opera singers running around, jumping and dancing." Hansel and Gretel is in Invercargill on July 25 at the Civic Theatre and in Wanaka on July 28 and 29 at the Lake Wanaka Centre. Tickets are available from Ticketek.

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