“Wait a minute. Where are the children?”
- Father, Act I, Scene 3, Hansel and Gretel
This time of year, at high Nutcracker season, you can generally find them at The Nutcracker. As a friendly portal into realms orchestral and balletic, it has no peer. You have to wonder what generations of children might have missed had Tchaikovsky and Balanchine not joined hands across the decades to produce a work as meaningful to aficionados as it is to newbies. For many children – and their parents – putting on a pair of shiny black Mary Janes and making the trek to the Academy of Music represents their sole annual encounter with orchestral music and dance.
If only opera had an analogue in the repertoire – something as seriously friendly to children, and as adult-friendly to the serious lover of a great score.
Opera, of course, does. And as reliably as the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker appears every year, once again this season, Humperdincks’ Hänsel und Gretel is no where to be found.
The Academy of Vocal Arts used to produce it every year, or nearly so. Not too long ago, the Opera Company of Philadelphia mounted the wondrous Maurice Sendak version. This year, some Philadelphians might go to a local movie theater Dec. 22 to see/hear the Metropolitan Opera’s Richard Jones production, which has a lot to recommend it. But even that movie-cast is an encore presentation, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting, rather than this year’s production, which, in a rite-of-passage tradition associated with the work, has boy-wonder Robin Ticciati conducting in his Met debut.
Opera with popcorn and soda in your lap is all fine and good. We approve. But it’s not the same as a local live production that could become an annual tradition. The Opera Company of Philadelphia is the obvious entity to take it on, and this isn’t meant as a criticism of the troupe, which, in my book, is doing quite well artistically and financially. The Opera has a lot taking up its energies right now. Sandwiching in another production around everything else going in December would be a scheduling challenge for the city.
But think about what an ambitious annual production of Hänsel und Gretel in the Academy of Music could mean. It would be a reliable earner for the Opera Company. It has great roles for young singers and a substantive score for the orchestra. In this new ear of artistic partnering, why shouldn’t our opera company and orchestra be talking about this?
Funding new productions is always a question, but underwriting a new annual Hänsel und Gretel seems like the great undiscovered philanthropic sugarplum of our time. Or, to switch metaphors, it hits all the right chords for funders: it would further artistic ambitions of the groups involved, pose no risk at the box office, and would do a world of good for children.