[NOTE: I wrote this post quite a while ago and never published it until now, so it’s not as timely as it once was. In fact, it’s not timely at all. But I think we continue to need the relief of art. Although the subject matter is somewhat Grimm—at least we have a happy ending here.]
When it was reported, the story of 7-year-old Yamato Tanooka—put out of his car by his parents as punishment for misbehavior and then lost in the woods for six days and ultimately found—reminded a lot of people of the tale “Hansel and Gretel.”
You all probably know the story, or an approximation of the story. The parallels were obvious, but the original story as the brothers Grimm related it is very dark, the parents’ motives much darker than Yamato’s parents’ reasons for their meant-to-be-temporary abandonment of their son:
Hansel and Gretel are young children whose father is a woodcutter. When a great famine settles over the land, the woodcutter’s abusive second wife decides to take the children into the woods. Her plan was to abandon the kids in the woods so that she and her husband will not starve to death. According to her it is mainly because the children eat too much. The woodcutter opposes the plan but finally and reluctantly submits to his wife’s scheme. However, while talking about their plan, they are unaware that Hansel and Gretel have overheard them from the children’s bedroom. After the parents have gone to bed, Hansel sneaks out of the house and gathers as many white pebbles as he can, then returns to his room, reassuring Gretel that God will not forsake them.
If you read that Wiki entry I linked, you’ll find that the first attempt fails, the children in their resourcefulness return home, and a second and more successful abandonment is staged. These parents are nothing if not determined. Of course, as we know, the children are captured by a witch, outwit her, and (I had not remembered this part) when the children get home there is a happy reunion because the wicked stepmother is dead and the father has been regretting his part and mourning his children.
Well, isn’t that a pretty tale? As with most Grimm fairy tales, the brothers Grimm seem aptly named. But they didn’t make this stuff up, they merely compiled traditional folk stories. Many such stories feature wicked stepmothers, probably a remnant of the days when stepmothers were common due to the death of mothers in childbirth, and the high death rate in general. The famine theme in “Hansel and Gretel” is probably a remnant of actual famines that hit periodically, perhaps in this case the Great Famine of the early 14th century, which caused millions of deaths throughout Europe and probably presented parents with dilemmas much like the one facing the parents in “Hansel and Gretel”:
The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death and even cannibalism and infanticide.
The Grimm fairy tale is a frightening one, despite its happy ending. Frightening, but masterful and primal.
One of the transformations of the tale occurred with the Humperdink opera of the same name. I’ve written about my love of this masterpiece several times before. Masterpiece? you ask. Isn’t it a light children’s entertainment? Yes and no; it is that, and much more. The music is extraordinarily beautiful, often compared to Wagner (Mahler was its original conductor). The libretto incorporates various German folk tunes which are very melodic, and it explores several deeper themes such as fear, courage, faith, child abuse, and regret (not to mention the recurring theme of hunger, of course).
The opera also changes the Grimm tale into something a bit less grim and more psychologically modern. In the opera we have a mother (rather than a stepmother) at the end of her rope and given to bursts of immature temper, who sends her own children off into the dark woods as a punishment to collect berries, but not with the intention of harming them; a well-meaning father with a drinking problem; two high-spirited children who aren’t exactly obedient, their initial sibling rivalry and teasing turning to sibling support during the crisis; and ultimately dedicated parents who go off to search for the children when the mother’s temper has cooled and they realize that the children they actually love are in grave danger.
Here are a few scenes from the opera. For the first one, I’ve chosen a version with somewhat more modern costumes and sets than the traditional ones, but the reason I chose this one despite its drawbacks is that it has helpful English subtitles so it’s easy to understand (by the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the opera, I want to add that Hansel is always played by a grown woman acting as a boy, and Gretel by a grown woman also, because the required quality of the characters’ voices demands a power not achievable by children).
In the scene, the mother has already sent the children off into the woods, and after that her husband comes home, drunk as a skunk but happy as a clam because he’s had a great day and sold a lot of brooms at a festival. He describes the whole thing to his wife, pulling out of his sack a surprise—a wonderful selection of the food he’s purchased with the money. The couple celebrates (they’d all been near starvation).
And then the father remembers the children and asks after them.
That moment is one of the major transition points in the opera, where the relatively lighthearted tone of the previous section changes to something much darker as the parents slowly realize what is happening (this version is one of those “modernized” and “improved” ones that appears to have the parents preparing to have a little sexual encounter, but please ignore that because it’s not part of the opera as written and it’s just a moment at the beginning of the segment I’ve cued up). Note in particular the ominous drumbeat at 1:06, as the father realizes the terrible thing his wife has done, and understands that his children are at the mercy of pernicious forces in the forest.
I have long conceptualized that drumbeat as his heart pounding in fear. Please watch the clip here (the “Ilsenstein” is the name of the dangerous forest). I don’t know about you, but for me it is truly frightening (and I suppose worthy of Halloween). The singers bring to it all the operatic conviction they can muster (which you can see especially in the many closeups), expressing the fear and guilt of parents who have done something careless and have endangered the lives of their own children:
This next one is from a Spanish production (in German). I include it to show a wonderful powerhouse performance by a baritone—this time a younger, more handsome one—playing the father, and also because the mother looks like Sally Field to me. I’ve cued it up to show the same section as above (and the heartbeat-drumbeat occurs at 32:30), without English subtitles this time:
And here is a version that was done by opera students at SUNY Purchase, a college that has a fabulous performing arts program. This production is from 2012, but I saw a later production there (2015) in person, and it was also marvelous. The father in this version, young and slim though he may be, has quite a voice, too. I don’t know where he gets it from, but he’s well worth watching (heartbeat-drumbeat at 31:28):
And in case you’re upset by all of this angst, and want to see the happy ending in which the family is reunited, here it is, as performed by the Purchase students in 2012: