It’s a tale as old as time. A young brother and sister are driven from their poverty-stricken family to fend for themselves in the woods, only to be nearly eaten by a witch who lives in a gingerbread house. In the opera, Hansel and Gretel presents the classic Grimm’s fairyt
ale in Grand Opera style, including a few new characters and set to folk music-inspired themes by composer Engelbert Humperdinck. With Michigan Opera Theatre’s production, Hansel and Gretel takes the fantasy to a whole new level – with puppets.
“Whether that be a giant witch or a tree or just a piece of fabric, the craft of puppetry is the magic of making something come alive on stage,” said director and master puppeteer Basil Twist.
Twist designed the production, including the puppets, costumes and scenery, keeping his “puppeteer’s touch” everywhere.
With the exception of Hansel and Gretel themselves, he said that nearly everything on stage is made through puppetry or through augmented costume. Those elements include a larger-than-life mother and father and 14 angel marionettes operated by puppeteers from high above the stage.
“Typically, there’s a children’s chorus on stage as the angels,” he said. ”But with puppets you can make them fly.”
The most impressive effect of them all, however, may be the opera’s antagonist: The Witch. While performed by a live singer, traditionally a male, the character requires an additional three puppeteers to manage the 15 foot costume. Inside, the singer manages everything from the waist up, including an oversized prosthetic face, a huge headdress and arms twice the length of real arms. Three puppeteers manage the bottom, one to work the legs, one to make the costume rise up and down and one to make the whole thing move around.
“The mechanism and the puppeteers allow the singer to perform as this huge flamboyant, wild witch,” Twist said. “The witch is going to eat the kid, I wanted to really see that.”
Twist created the costume in partnership with the Jim Henson Company to make his original design come to life, who he said are the best people to work with in the industry.
“They were excited to do something out there with me, because I tend to do somewhat out there stuff,” he said.
Though based on a children’s story, Twist said Hansel and Gretel is not directed at kids, though it is accessible to them. He said the performance is still a Grand Opera with incredible music, and that everyone can love puppets.
“Puppets should not turn adults off to the shows,” he said. “They should turn adults on to puppetry.”