When Siblings Create

Two siblings writing about two siblings: Hänsel und Gretel, the work of librettist Adelheid Wetter and her brother, the composer Engelbert Humperdinck, introduced opera to countless children throughout the world. Read an excerpt from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas. Part 1.

Hänsel und Gretel, the opera project, started with a letter Adelheid wrote to her brother in April 1890. Her husband’s birthday was approaching quickly, and she and her children wanted to surprise him with a few songs to lyrics she had written based on the Hänsel und Gretel fairy tale. She asked Engelbert for help. He composed the music for three sets of lyrics she had sent him. It took him only two hours.

Ten days after the birthday party Adelheid showed her brother a developed plot with new ideas. What had originated as a family affair—two siblings working on a musical tale about two siblings—would ultimately burst into the world as a full-scale opera—and into the future as the most successful Märchenoper.

What we see on stage is not what the writers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm had recorded more than seventy years earlier during their research in villages in Hessen and Swabia. For Adelheid, the Grimm version was too grim: the world of Hänsel and Gretel is in the grip of a famine. Crazed by hunger, the stepmother convinces the father, a lumberjack, to get rid of the children in order to save food. They abandon them deep in the woods to die. In the end, when the children return after killing the witch and crossing a river on the back of a white duck, the stepmother herself is dead and the father relieved.

Adelheid gave Hänsel and Gretel a birth mother who sends the kids into the woods to collect strawberries as punishment for dancing and playing instead of knitting socks and binding brooms. As they are wandering lost in the forest, they encounter Sandmännchen, an archetypal character based on northern European folklore, and Taumännchen, a little creature of Adelheid’s invention. By August, the libretto was finished. The rest of the family—their parents and Engelbert’s fiancée Hedwig Taxer—helped polish the text. They also decided the fate of future generations of sopranos. Adults, not children, should play and sing the main roles. Two female voices, a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, would be best.

A year later, Engelbert had completed the score, and in late 1893, the first copies went out to opera houses. On November 22, 1893, three weeks before the scheduled premiere at the Nationaltheater in Munich, he set down the final notes. The rehearsals went smoothly. However, most opera houses hesitated, sniffed at the Märchenoper like a rabbit at a carrot, and waited to see how the audience in Munich would respond. Karlsruhe was committed, Weimar still hesitated. As long as their Musikdirektor Richard Strauss was traveling in Greece and Egypt, the administration of the Weimar Hoftheater was only willing to schedule two performances.

The curtain in Munich did not rise. A flu epidemic had been sweeping through Germany. The premiere was canceled. Karlsruhe followed, out of fear of the epidemic. Weimar was spared and went ahead. Strauss had returned in the meantime, had read both libretto and score, and was thrilled. What Humperdinck had sent him was a “first-class masterpiece,” he wrote to the composer. On December 23, Strauss conducted the first performance of Hänsel und Gretel

Once the flu epidemic was over, Hänsel und Gretel began to infect the hearts of audiences. Within a few weeks, it had been played in fifty opera houses before enthusiastic crowds. The tale of the two children brought musical giants to their knees. Gustav Mahler insisted on conducting the opera in Hamburg. Cosima Wagner, Richard Wagner’s widow, oversaw the production in Dessau, and in Vienna, Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf went backstage to congratulate Humperdinck.

Hänsel und Gretel strayed into the forest and conquered the world, first in Basel and in London, then at the Met in New York. In April 1907, the Märchenoper finally arrived in the farthest corner of the world, when the first chords of the overture filled the auditorium of the Melbourne Opera.

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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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