Enchanting opera for the young



Orchestra of the Music Makers

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

It was Saturday afternoon and many children and their parents packed the Esplanade Concert Hall to attend an opera.

Hansel And Gretel by German Romantic composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921, not the pop star) is a two-hour-long musical drama in the grand tradition of Richard Wagner, which could have proven a long stretch.

Furthermore, the Brothers Grimm classic involved bratty kids, parental ineptitude, paedophilia, cannibalism and witch-burning - not exactly children's fare.

Innocence and incredulity is the stuff of fairy tales - so they say. This semi-staged production directed by Edith Podesta accompanied by the Orchestra of the Music Makers, led with much care to musical detail by Chan Tze Law, worked a charm because it was rich in one vital element - enchantment.

Despite the many noisy children, the narrative itself was gripping enough to keep one's attention through its entire course.

The opera was sung entirely in English, with helpful surtitles provided. Even if one already knew the story and its eventual outcome, much of the fun was in following the action, which had more than a fair share of interesting nuances.

The scene when Hansel realised he and his sister were lost in the forest was genuinely harrowing. This was soothed only by the Angels' Prayer, which provided reassurance and a quantum of solace.

The cast of international opera singers was also excellent. Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup (Hansel) and German soprano Felicitas Fuchs (Gretel) displayed excellent chemistry as the playful siblings, contrasted by their hapless parents, a neurotic and depressive mother (Australian soprano Fiona Campbell) and a jolly-while-inebriated father (Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe).

Campbell had a second role, stealing the show as a Fran Drescher- like Witch, attired in leopard spots and black hosiery.

Her blend of cackling and "friendliness", grooming the children for an ultimate degustation, was even likable, although eerily so. It seemed almost a pity when she had her fiery comeuppance, in the hands of homicidal kids.

The small roles of the Sleep Fairy and Dew Fairy were undertaken by very promising local singers, Evangeline Ng and Rachel Lim, respectively. Also impressive was the 100-strong Volare Treble Voices (directed by Darius Lim), which had added elements of movement and lights that provided an extra dimension of fantasy.

The young orchestra, honed by conductor Chan over the years on a steady diet of Mahler symphonies, Wagner bleeding chunks and John Williams movie scores, took to the music naturally. At no time did the orchestral forces overwhelm the singers.

Overall, this was a splendid production that ran for just two shows. That was, in a way, a pity because a lot more young people could have been introduced to the magical world of grand opera.

Humperdinck's Hansel And Gretel is, after all, several steps away from the "real world" murder, incest and mayhem of Wagner operas.

Correction note: In our earlier story, we had said microphones were used to the singers' advantage. This is incorrect. The singers did not use microphones in this performance. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Enchanting opera for the young'. Print Edition | Subscribe