Bon Appétit, Hänsel and Gretel!

The most powerful character in the world’s most famous fairy tale opera is neither Gretel nor Hänsel. It is food. Its vocabulary is everywhere.


Singers of Hänsel und Gretel! Rent a room, decorate it in part as witch house, in part as forest, and on a long table lay out all food that is mentioned in the libretto. If there is still space have a piano and a stool for the accompanist, perform Hänsel und Gretel with all your talent, sing and in between act out the verbs of devouring. At the end open the buffet and invite the audience to help themselves. It will be a feast.

In no other opera do the minds of the characters spin so fiercely around food and eating. The obsession that unites all characters, the good ones and the evil, the obsession with food and the lack thereof will not leave the story for a second. When it comes to the range of culinary vocabulary, Hänsel und Gretel is in the opera repertoire without a rival.* Adelheid Wette’s libretto, set into music by her brother Engelbert Humperdinck, contains more than 50 different words and phrases around food. Here are some of them.

der Eierfladen (or Pfannkuchen) = pan cake. Here, in this compound noun the emphasis is on Eier (eggs, singualar: das Ei) as a sign that we are well off right now.

trocken Brot = “dry bread”, Brot ohne Butter, Käse oder Wurst. This phrase which we use also today (Ich lebe nur von Liebe und trocken Brot) reveals that we are not well off right now.

der Butterwecken = Wecken mit Butter gebacken. A Wecken is a southern word for a wedge-shaped roll baked with wheat and butter.

das Mehl = flour. Wir machen Kuchen und Brot aus Mehl, Butter, Eiern und Milch.

der Rahm = Auf der Milch ist der Rahm.

die Sahne = Rahm whipped until it becomes stiff. Ein Vanille-Eis mit Sahne bitte!

der Brei = mush, porridge. Reisbrei = Brei made from rice

die Wurst = sausage, plural: die Würste

der Speck = bacon

die Bohne = bean, plural: die Bohnen

die Zwiebel = onion, plural: die Zwiebeln

die Kartoffel = potato, plural: die Kartoffeln

der Likör aus Kümmel = caraway liquor

ein Viertel Pfund Kaffee = a quarter pound of coffee.

At the hut of the Knusperhexe we find sweet food.

der Zucker = sugar. Der Zucker macht das Essen süß.

die Torte = also mentioned as Kuchen, gefüllt mit süßer Sahne

der Kuchen = mentioned in various forms, e.g. Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Zauberkuchen

der Teig = Before it is put into a Backofen what will be a Kuchen is der Teig.

die Rosine = raisin

Schokolade and Marzipan are self-explanatory.

die Dattel = date, plural: die Datteln.

das Johannisbrot = carob, fruit of a Mediterranian tree

das Jungfernleder = an herb

Now, the verbs:


schlucken = to swallow

schmecken = to taste. Das schmeckt gut! That’s really tasty.

nagen = to nibble like a rabbit

naschen = the way you eat a little bit secretely, mostly sweets. Naschen implies fun. When you discover that a little finger had go through a creamy cake you left on the table, you ask your child, “Wer hat hier genascht?” (genascht: past participle of naschen)

knuspern = (old) to munch mostly nuts and cookies

schleckern = to eat candies, to lick on ice-cream, or whipped cream

verschleckern = to eat all candies, all ice-cream, all whipped cream in the jug

Verbs of eating with incredible enjoyment:

schmausen = to eat food that is available in abundance, the table bending under its weight.

sich laben an (reflexiv + dative) = to refresh and enjoy yourself with great food and drinks. Ich labe mich an der Schokoladentorte.

sich ergötzen an (reflexiv + dative) = to take great pleasure of eating food

füttern = to feed

mästen = to fatten. Although the word mästen is used for fattening animals, in this opera the Hexe intends to mästen Hänsel.

nudeln = to fatten up with pasta

* The opera was written in the early 1890s when the society was still coping with the upheaval of the industrial revolution. Machines had replaced manual labor. Crafts that flourished for centuries had become worthless over night. Hundreds of thousands were without work and eventually without food. Everybody in these times who watched Hänsel und Gretel understood the sufferings the characters displayed on stage.







Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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