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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh troupe gives modern spin to film of 'Hansel & Gretel' opera

Gingerbread is part of some families’ Christmas traditions. Cannibal witches? Less so. Yet the classic opera “Hansel & Gretel” is a holiday staple, and one that Pittsburgh’s Resonance Works has helped update in a playful new film version.

Instead of a witch tricking two kids into her kitchen, this adaptation finds the tykes visiting a famous TV pastry chef. “She’s very interested in having them on her show as the special guests, and main ingredients also,” said Resonance Works artistic and general director Maria Sensi Sellner, with a laugh. Gingerbread remains on the witch’s prospective menu.

The feature-length film, which premieres at an in-person event Sat., Dec. 18, at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater before heading to streaming, is a co-production with New York’s Opera Ithaca.

The contemporized concept is the brainchild of Opera Ithaca artistic director Ben Robinson, who wrote the show’s new English libretto. Robinson also directed the film, which is not a filmed stage production but rather a full-fledged movie, complete with multiple shooting locations and special effects – and with stars like nationally known mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen, who plays Hansel. (The opera’s child roles are typically sung by adult women.)

“‘Hansel & Gretel’ has been associated with holiday times for quite a long time, and it’s a tradition of ours to have something at this time of year that we can celebrate that’s very family-friendly,” said Sellner.

“Hänsel und Gretel,” as it's known in the original German, premiered in Germany, on Dec. 23, 1893, and has been associated with the holidays since. It was composed by Engelbert Humperdinck — not the British pop singer, of course, but the protégé of Richard Wagner whose sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto. It’s based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, though Humperdinck’s version is notably less dark.

Robinson proposed the film project to Sellner early in 2021, partly as a pandemic workaround. The score was recorded in June, with Sellner leading the Resonance Chamber Orchestra. Robinson shot the film primarily in Ithaca later that summer, though the finished feature also incorporates footage of the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus, recorded at WQED studios.

Like many Pittsburgh performing arts groups, Resonance resumed in-person performances this fall. But Sellner said there are benefits to filmed programming and online distribution.

“We saw some positive things that we could do using film that you really can’t do, or different than what you can do with in person programming,” she said. Some of “Hansel & Gretel,” for instance, was shot in real woods.

And, as Seller added, streaming a performance makes potential patrons of the whole world. “The biggest thing is making a genre like opera accessible to a broader audience,” she said.

The film’s cast includes Rosen, who is currently preparing to reprise her role in the Metropolitan Opera’s remount of its Grammy-nominated 2021 production of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten.” Soprano Marlen Nahhas, a recent alumna of the Cafritz Young Artists Program at Washington National Opera, plays Gretel. The dual role of the Mother and the Witch is sung by soprano Meghan Kasanders, who made her European opera debut as “Mütter” in a German-language production of the show at Staatsoper Hannover. Kasanders also won Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s 2017 Mildred Miller International Voice Competition.

The Dec. 18 premiere includes a live performance by the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus ensemble that appears in the film, singing two seasonal selections. The Resonance Chamber Orchestra will play works by Ottorino Respighi and Pittsburgh-based composer Nancy Galbraith.

“Hansel & Gretel” will begin streaming Dec. 19.

For more information on the event (and a trailer for the film), see here.