Three performances of Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera Hansel und Gretel are being mounted by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO) this weekend. They will take place in the Metropolitan Hall on Bade Road, and the director is Li Huan-hsiung (黎煥雄).
"I'm a great fan of Hansel und Gretel," said Roger Epple, conductor of the opera in Taipei. "I've conducted it 40 or 50 times, in four or five different productions. In Central Europe this work of Humperdinck's is among the 10 most popular operas? I mean, Magic Flute, Carmen, Tosca top the statistics, but then Hansel und Gretel. It's something like that.
"In Germany it's mostly performed at Christmas, because that's the only time when gingerbread is baked, and gingerbread features prominently in the plot. But there's no reason why it shouldn't be done in Taiwan in the heat of August as well because here there's no tradition that links the opera with any particular time of year.
"The folk songs that abound in the work sound good to children, but there are other kinds of music in it as well. The music for the entry into the dark wood, for instance, sounds to me like Mahler! There are even some moments here and there that remind me of the modernism of Schoenberg.
"I was born in Leipzig, not far from Weimar where the opera's premiere took place. That first performance was conducted by the young Richard Strauss, hard though it is to believe."
In case there's any confusion, the Engelbert Humperdinck who composed the opera, and is nowadays known almost entirely for this one work, is unrelated to the popular Anglo-Indian singer, currently aged 71, who adopted the old composer's bizarre-sounding name in the 1960s.
What: Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel
Where: Taipei Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台), 25 Bade Rd Sec 3, Taipei (台北市八德路三段25號)
When: Tonight and tomorrow at 7pm, and on Sunday at 2.30pm
Tickets: From NT$400 to NT$1,200, with the usual concessions
Reservations: Telephone (02) 3393-9888 for reservations.
Yang Chih-chin (楊智欽), the TSO's Assistant Conductor, said he'd rehearsed the soloists before the maestro arrived in Taipei. Epple was also here for a week last month, and then the two of them worked together on the musical side of the production.
"I think the TSO is a fine orchestra," continued Epple. "I'm particularly struck by their youth and the high percentage of female instrumentalists. Their average age is far younger than is the case with most orchestras in Europe."
The opera will be sung in German with Chinese subtitles.
Hansel und Gretel tells the story of two children who venture into a bewitched forest and encounter a witch living in a house made of gingerbread. The witch proceeds to entice the children into her lair - previous children who succumbed to her spells have been turned into gingerbread and now line the garden fence. Needless to say the kids eventually outwit her and are safely reunited with their parents.
The opera is unusual in lacking major roles for men. The only male soloist is the children's father, sung in this production by Chen Rong-kwei (陳榮貴). Even the boy Hansel is sung by a mezzo-soprano.
Writers on music are united in thinking Humperdinck shouldn't be dismissed as composing only for children. This, and a later work, Die Koningskinder (1910), are described by one historian as "distinguished by remarkable craftsmanship and a thorough knowledge of the limits of the composer's powers," assuring the pieces a respectable place in operatic literature. But then he adds the phrase "even though their effect is more pleasing than convincing," making you wonder what particular shortcomings he has in mind.