Feverish fairytale strikes the right note

12 September 2022

WAAPA’s evocative production of Hansel and Gretel shows the future of opera is in good hands, writes Penny Shaw.

Hansel and Gretel, WAAPA Classical Voice Students & WAAPA Symphony Orchestra ·
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, 9 September 2022 ·

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is an opera ripe for imaginative interpretation. We are all familiar with the fairytale but director Rachel McDonald sets this production, performed by WAAPA’s Classical Voice students, within the surreal fever dream of the elderly Margrete (touchingly played by Megan Sutton), a constant presence at the side of the stage.

The WAAPA Symphony Orchestra tackles the treacherous score with aplomb, under the baton of the reassuring and inspiring Jessica Gethin. This is a score of Wagnerian proportions and the reduced string section sounds tentative during the overture, but once the focus moves from pit to stage they relax. 

Margrete watches on as the opera opens and our two pajama-clad children are seen messing about in the kitchen, complaining about being hungry and not doing their allocated chores. Both are excellent vocally, Sophia Wasley’s rounded soprano voice complementing Ruth Burke’s rich, wholesome mezzo. The opera is essentially about rites of passage and the two leads effectively convey their transition from helpless children to resourceful protagonists, the opposite journey perhaps of our dreamer Margrete, as she confronts her own loss of autonomy.

Margrete (Megan Sutton) watches over the sleeping children. Photo: Stephen Heath

In her director’s notes, McDonald refers to the story as brutal and, indeed, in the Brothers Grimm version the children’s stepmother repeatedly attempts to kill off her stepchildren. In the opera, however, the children’s mother is overwhelmed, overworked and stressed out and sends the children off into the forest to get a moment’s respite rather than to kill them. Her music is the least appealing, and on the whole well negotiated by Nike Etim; sounding furious without coming over as shrill is extremely tricky and vocally she is at her best in the more lyrical passages. 

The scene takes a strange turn (as dreams do) with the return of Father – Benjamin Del Borrello, his clear baritone and excellent diction filling the auditorium. Drunk, and seemingly dressed as Gretel’s teddy bear, we wonder what his job is – weirdly attired broom seller/children’s party entertainer – but either way he and his wife, wearing nurse’s scrubs, are a strange couple as they head off into the night to search for their missing children. 

Not until the enchanted forest of Act 2 do we really hear the influence of Wagner. Gretel’s rising anxiety is expressed in music that could be from Tristan und Isolde or Die Walküre; Wasley’s shining tone and gorgeous upper register sounding impressively effortless. Another highlight is the delightful “Evening Prayer”, Gethin holding everyone together as they settle to her perfectly measured tempo. 

Hansel and Gretel’s parents (Nike Etim and Benjamin Del Borello) are an odd couple. Photo: Stephen Heath

The dream setting allows tremendous licence; the gingerbread children are grotesque nightmarish characters, clad in back with white masks fixed to the backs of their heads, limbs bending the wrong way, and we watch in horror as Hansel and Gretel delightedly feed on them. 

The witch (Karlie Butler) appears as a well-groomed housewife, enchanting the children with her beautifully coiffed hair, sparkly shoes and animal print ‘resort wear’. Butler clearly relishes the challenge of this role and there is no disguising the potential of her dramatic soprano voice, particularly when she descends into crazy witch mode as children writhe and twitch under her spell. 

There is so much to unpack in the relationship between Gretel and her teddy (representing her Father perhaps?), in turns thrown in anger, cuddled, and finally cast into the oven, closely followed by the witch – much to the audience’s delight.

The witch (Karlie Butler) initially enchants the children before things turn sour. Photo: Stephen Heath

There is an interesting supporting cast – Olivia Ferguson, as the Sandman, creepily marks up Gretel for surgery and Sade Partridge, the sweet-voiced Dew Fairy, wakes the children up dressed for yoga.

We finally hear the ensemble sing towards the end of the opera; more cuddly toys rain from the sky as the witch’s previous victims appear, a line of blind, dead children waiting for affection to save them.  

The show is designed, built and crewed by WAAPA’s Production and Design students; the simple set by Emily Chong brought to life by Lachlan Kessey’s evocative lighting design. It was wonderful to see departments coming together to create such a polished performance – WAAPA at its finest. 

Staging a full-length opera is a significant undertaking but the benefits of performing roles in their entirety and working with professionals like Gethin and McDonald are inestimable for young singers. This was one of two principal casts and if the second is anything like the quality of the first, then the future of opera in WA is in good hands. 

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is at Geoff Gibbs Theatre until 25 September.

Pictured top: The witch (Karlie Butler) reveals her true colours to Gretel (Sophia Wasley) and Hansel (Ruth Burke). Photo: Stephen Heath

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Author —
Penny Shaw

Penny is an opera singer/cabaret artist/MC/podcaster/writer/director, in fact a self-confessed 'slashie' with a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University. As a child she loved the the heady terror of a fast roundabout, as a mother of four children she hates swings.

Past Articles

  • Young singers in full voice for opera allsorts

    With 16 soloists, a 37-piece orchestra and a wonderfully varied repertoire, this opera gala is worth singing about, writes Penny Shaw.

  • A superb taste of Spain

    Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads a playful WASO through some Spanish flavours, with Penny Shaw particularly taken by a thrilling interpretation of Rodrigo’s famous Adagio. 

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