Smile Politely

Hansel and Gretel preview


This weekend, instead of taking your children or younger siblings to a playground, take them to the opera.

University of Illinois Alumnae Neely Bruce has composed a new opera based on Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel that is sure to please all ages.  Directed by School of Music voice professor Ricardo Herrera, and choreographed by Dance Professor Becky Nettl-Fiol, the opera is infused with dance.  Conductor Sergei Pavlov will lead the U of I New Music Ensemble through a score that blends rock, pop, balladry, funk, and rap.

Herrera is excited to direct Hansel and Gretel, which he believes to be a wonderful children’s story. “When I found out that the U of I was producing it and that Maestro Diazmuñoz invited me to direct it, I was dancing like a boy, literally.”

Hansel and Gretel’s love of dance is a recurring theme throughout the opera.  The children have been practicing new steps that they are excited to show to their father. As a father of three, Herrera had no difficultly relating to the opera. “I know how it feels when your children ask and ask and insist on playing or dancing or showing you a new move they have discovered.”

The opera demands multitalented performers; cast members are acting, singing, and dancing with equal emphasis.  Herrera says that the singers have spent hours and hours rehearsing their dance steps and balancing their body movements with their vocal technique. “It really breaks down stereotypical opera and opera singers,” Nettl-Fiol says. “They don’t just stand there and sing.”

Allison Wahl, who plays Gretel, agrees that there is more dancing in Hansel and Gretel than she has ever done in a previous show.  She says that she loves what the dancers have brought to the show. “[The dancing] really makes the story come alive.”

Dancer Joseph Hutto also enjoys the collaborative aspect of the show: “I think the interaction with another group of performers has been really refreshing and I have really enjoyed the process of creating something and then sharing it with a group of performers from another discipline. We both add to what the other is doing and it feels very fulfilling.” 

The dancers play a variety of animals during the show, ranging from birds and cats to bears and wolves.  “The choreography does not mock the animals,” dancer Elise Moore explains. Rather, it is more abstract and draws from movement principles inherent in the animals’ natural movement.

Characterization research has been a key part of the rehearsal process for both dancers and singers. Wahl says that it has been fun creating the 9-year-old Gretel character. “To get into character, I try to be the girl I was when I was little. Listening to music from when I was nine, looking at old pictures, remembering school teachers and old friends, and re-reading books I loved at that age all helped me remember and recreate myself as a child.”

Herrera is incredibly pleased with the character development he has seen throughout the rehearsal process. “I have seen my witches really transform themselves from young University students to little, fragile, kind grandmas to very evil ugly witches…all through their eyes, body language and full commitment to their characters,” he says.

Wahl explains that the characters in the opera are unique and that the telling of the story (rather than the personal development of the characters) is what is important.  While the music supplements the characters and their situations and interactions, it does not necessarily define them. 

Bruce has woven universal themes of kindness, love and friendship into the show. “I hope [audience members] leave with a big smile and the knowledge that forgiveness, perseverance and good will can help us all in the darkest moments…just like Hansel and Gretel went from despair, emptiness and fear to hope and fullness,” Herrera says.

Bring your family and friends and let your inner child out at Hansel and Gretel next weekend.

Hansel and Gretel runs Thursday-Saturday, April 30-May 2 at 7:30 pm; Sunday, May 3 at 3 pm at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

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