By Augusta Olsen
Sweet treats and a warm fire are tempting this time of year, but beware of the witch in the wood—so goes the Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel. Opera Omaha has beautifully adapted Englebert Humperdinck’s German opera about the wayward siblings for Omaha audiences of all ages. This weekend, Opera Omaha stages its first production of “Hansel & Gretel” at the Rose Theater, a magical one-hour opera that tells of the pair’s troubles and triumph in the forest.
The story is told in three short acts in the course of an hour, a good amount of time for younger audience members. In the first act, the hungry and poor Hansel and Gretel are sent into the woods by their mother to collect berries after being reprimanded for their naughty behavior. In the second act, the brother and sister spend a magical night in the woods, protected in their sleep by the Sandman and the dew fairy, each played with brilliance by Kirk Vaughn Robinson and Shelby VanNoordstrand. The children awaken to see the witch’s gingerbread house in the third act, and soon meet the frightful hag herself.
Excellent performances were delivered by each member of the relatively small cast. Kristin Behrmann and Maria Lindsey played Hansel and Gretel with childlike zest in the show I saw; Jennifer Berkebile and Alyssa Nance also play the brother and sister at other performances. Behrmann and Lindsey’s voices ring out with youthful energy, filling the Rose Theater and belying their precision and mastery as professional opera singers. Like all operas, this performance is sung with no amplification of the players’ voices, and none is needed. The power of the singers’ voices is perfectly balanced with the orchestra’s live music, which was performed with buoyancy and polish by a selected group of local and national musicians.
The sandman is the most transporting character of the show. Robinson lives up to his fame, making his Opera Omaha debut after touring nationally with “Phantom of the Opera.” Drew Duncan is also wonderful as the witch, playing her with more whimsy and culinary vainglory than horror. The mother, played by Elizabeth Bennett, is effectively shrill when she reprimands the children in song and sends them into the woods. The dew fairy most charmed the children in the audience, but it was the father who most charmed me. Robert McNichols, Jr. brings a special sense of comfort and hope to hard times with his warm baritone and bright stage presence.
It’s exciting that Opera Omaha has developed this opera into a family production. Former Opera Omaha executive director Jane Hill artfully arranged the music to give it a lighter feel than the original opera, writing an entirely new libretto for Opera Omaha’s production. Hill also wrote a storybook telling the story of Hansel and Gretel, complemented by the illustrations of Paula Wallace. The set was locally designed by Omaha Community Playhouse designer James Othuse, and constructed by Heartland Studio. The lighting masterfully enhanced the set, adding stars to the night sky, magic to the witch’s house and fire to the gaping oven. The costumes complete the fanciful staging, with delightful additions from costumer Dwayne Ibsen for the sandman and the witch.
Although appropriate for children, the musical appeals to anyone with a yen for fairy tales. Opera Omaha has installed their superscript screen above the Rose stage, and for the first time, they are including Spanish translation of the lyrics, along with English. Since the opera is sung in English, it is very accessible to Omaha audiences of all ages.
In addition to the five performances this weekend, Opera Omaha is staging ten performances for school children throughout the metro area. A large number of area school districts including OPS, Millard, Westside, Elkhorn, Papillion-La Vista and some Iowa districts have been able to bring approximately 8,000 students to the Rose Theater this week to see the opera. Each student was also given a copy of the book by Hill and Wallace, the first storybook published by Opera Omaha. The field trips are made possible by a number of grants and donations from organizations including Peter Kiewit Foundation, ConAgra Foods, Lincoln Financial Group and Nebraska Arts Council.
“Hansel & Gretel” opens Friday night at 7:30 p.m. The company plays four more shows, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $19 for adults and $10 for students.
The 1 p.m. performance on Sunday will be a special grandparent performance. Grandparents are encouraged to bring their grandchildren and join Opera Omaha at the Omaha Children’s Museum after the performance for refreshments. The Opera Omaha guild will also host a holiday boutique with sweet treats and ornaments after each performance of “Hansel & Gretel.”