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Music Friday: Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Engelbert Humperdinck and an illustration of his opera Hänsel und Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hänsel und Gretel was first performed on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany. There is nothing particularly Christmasy about the opera, but from the beginning, it has been associated with Christmas and is most frequently performed at this time of the year.

The idea to turn the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale into an opera came from Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, who had written a few verses based on the story to entertain her children. Humperdinck and Wette originally wrote a series of sixteen songs, connected by spoken dialogue, but Humperdinck quickly decided to add instrumental passages to turn the piece into a full opera.

Humperdinck's melodies were inspired by German folk tunes, but his musical techniques were rooted in those of his mentor, Richard Wagner, who conducted the premiere of the opera. The combination was an instant success, and Hänsel und Gretel spread quickly throughout the world. The first American performance was only two years later, in October 1895.

The opera is written in German, and is usually recorded in that language; the several versions available for streaming on Hoopla are all in German. But because the audience is more likely than most opera audiences to include children, performances in the English-speaking world are usually given in translation, and an English-language recording is available on CD.

Perhaps because it is so family-friendly, Hänsel und Gretel has often served as opera's introduction to new media. The Metropolitan Opera's first complete radio broadcast of an opera was of Hänsel und Gretel, on Christmas Day 1931. It was also the first opera to be broadcast in full on television, when a television station in Schenectady, New York, aired it on December 23, 1943.

Production still from Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (1954)

Production still from Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (1954)

Hänsel und Gretel has also been filmed several times. One of the most popular versions, though it does not include all of the music, was a 1954 animated film made with stop-motion puppets. This was the first full-length animated film to be made in a technique other than hand-drawn animation and was one of the very few animated features of its era that didn't come from Walt Disney.

Humperdinck wrote several other operas and a variety of orchestral music, but he is recognized today almost exclusively for Hänsel und Gretel. If people recognize the name for anything else, they probably aren't thinking of him, but of the popular singer of the 1960s and 1970s; that Engelbert Humperdinck was born Albert Dorsey, and took his memorable stage name from the composer.