Saturday is the day I burrow into my sturdy maroon book, The Standard Opera and Concert Guide, kindly bestowed on me by Ginger, my school chum. It’s organized by composers, in alpha order, and the first time I flipped through it, I noticed the name Humperdinck, which has a lot of emotional value for me. My first boyfriend’s mother loved the popular singer, Engelbert Humperdinck, but even more significant, it’s the family name of the prince in The Princess Bride–one of my favorite books (and movie versions of a book, too.)
So, I was interested to read about the opera that Englebert Humperdinck (1854-1921), the composer, is best known for Hansel und Gretel, first produced in Weimar on December 23, 1894, and was ever after associated with Christmas, kind of like Annie in the musical theater realm always works best as a Christmas show.
Interestingly, Humperdinck the composer didn’t set out to write a fairy tale opera. Originally, he was going to write a few melodies to accompany his sister’s script. But he got caught up in the story and its dramatic possibilities, writing a full orchestral score, applying the same musical methods Wagner employed in telling about gods and demigods. Siegfried Wagner, Richard Wagner’s son, gave Hansel und Gretel high praise when he said it was the most important German opera since Parsifal.
Whether Hansel und Gretel was ever that important is debatable, but it certainly is popular. Can you imagine a happier scene than when the gingerbread cookies come to life after Hansel and Gretel tumble the witch into the oven? There’s no shortage of charming renditions of the most beloved melody from the show,” The Evening Prayer,” or “Abendsegen.”
Professional singers perform the piece in its original German. Here is a YouTube clip of duo singing “Evening Prayer” for a Christmas service. (Hansel is a popular trouser role–when a light mezzo soprano plays a male adolescent.) They are, in a word, delightful. See if you don’t agree.