• Director Joel Ivany on the Family Roots of Hansel & Gretel

    By Joel Ivany


    Guest Writer: Joel Ivany

    Joel Ivany is the Founder and Artistic Director of Against the Grain Theatre, and the Program Director of Opera in the 21st Century at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity. He was born in Penticton, BC, but now calls Toronto home. He's currently directing the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Hansel & Gretel, which puts a modern Toronto twist on the classic fairytale.

    In this edition of NOTES, he dives into the opera's family origins.

    Hansel and Gretel has family ties all over it. It’s the story of a family; a brother and sister, their parents and the house where they all live. The origins of the story also include family as two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, wrote the original back in 1812. Another set of siblings, Adelheid Wette and Engelbert Humperdinck, took the Grimm story and turned it into an opera that premiered in 1893.

    The idea of the opera came from songs that both Adelheid and Engelbert created for Adelheid’s children (Humperdinck’s nieces). What began as folk tunes for a puppet show, turned into a Wagner-like, full-scale opera.

    Engelbert and Adelheid, two siblings behind Hansel & Gretel

    When I was asked by Alexander Neef, the Canadian Opera Company’s General Director, to create a new production of this opera for the company, it seemed like an exciting prospect, but also a massive challenge. I wanted to create a work that my five-year-old son, Sammy, would enjoy, as well as adults who are very familiar with the story and the opera. Sammy grew up in an opera family, but first learned about the art form after seeing an episode of Curious George where he goes to the opera. He’s also familiar with what we’re doing for this Hansel and Gretel – he knew the dances we have planned and he wanted to be one of the gingerbread kids. So the challenge remained, how to entertain both young and older? I kept coming back to the one thing all humans have in common: at one point, we were all children. We read stories, we dreamed, we created, and we believed in the impossible.

    Sammy Ivany on set

    As I put my creative team together to tackle this story, we looked at the original intent of the creators, but also of each of the characters in the story. Our dramaturg Katherine Syer and set and projection designer S. Katy Tucker were drawn to the idea of community. Traditionally this opera is set in a broom-maker’s cottage, but I was most drawn to the end of the opera where there is a choir of gingerbread children. Where do these kids come from? Where are their parents? Who is looking after them? Who is their community? This line of thought opened a world of new possibilities in how we could look at this opera, as well as its universal themes – like poverty, hunger, and family – that still impact communities around the world today.

    We were particularly struck by how these themes hit home, and chose to look at the opera through a distinctly Toronto lens. What if this story took place now, in 2020? Who are these characters? What is their community? Who is the witch? Where does imagination come into our everyday lives? This continued to resonate as we found more and more connections in the opera to communities right here in our city. Before I immersed myself into the world of opera, I was involved more regularly with the Salvation Army. In particular, my family was connected to the community in Regent Park. Meeting residents of Regent Park, and sharing life and stories with one another opened a whole new way that I viewed my city. We are all trying to be the best people we can be and often we are reminded to be grateful for the things we have, as opposed to the things that we don’t have.

    Preliminary costume sketches of Hansel and Gretel's parents, Gertrude and Peter, by designer Ming Wong

    While Hansel and Gretel might be the main characters, there are also adults in this opera. At a certain point, children grow up and some become parents themselves. We’re not necessarily instructed how to raise children well, but we do our best and learn from what was taught to us. Hansel and Gretel have two parents who, I feel, are doing their best just to get by. They work hard, care about their family, love them, but work long hours, trying to provide as best they can but feel bad when they can’t. That is both relatable and recognizable. So I challenged the “parents” in this production – what if they decided to be creative? What if they decided, just for once, to shake off their adult responsibilities for a moment and play? No matter what age we are and no matter how stressful life can get, we are all creative beings.  We crave stories; we love listening to them, we love watching them on screens (both big and small), we love hearing them through music and dance. These parents are no different. That’s an important reminder.

    Safety is another theme that stuck out to me. In this production, we’re introducing new characters outside of the story that connect with the family. We have an upstairs neighbour that is a bit older, who has an open door policy into his apartment. We have a community of kids and guardians/parents that look out for one another and care for each other. Typically in this opera, the kids are off in the woods alone. In our production, we’re trying to remind everyone that despite our obsession with technology now, we still need people in our lives that help us get through life. When it comes to children, now, more than ever, we want our children to use their creativity and imaginations, and to not grow up too quickly.

    A common notion I hear from picking up my son at school is how we as parents can’t always trust kids to play outside at all hours, like when we were kids. We must teach them boundaries and rules that we hope they will live by. As I raise my son, I hope that he will know what is right and wrong and be able to make the right decisions on his own. He will have a lot of influence: friends, media, teachers, family, and the world at large. Ultimately, I hope he will have enough inner strength to listen to what he believes to be right and true.

    Joel leading the concept discussion on the set of Hansel & Gretel

    So our new production focuses on a community living right here in Toronto: a group of people who haven’t necessarily chosen to live amongst each other, but circumstance has brought them all together. We see things through children’s eyes and all of a sudden we live in a world of witches, magical creatures, forests, and candy cane houses.

    Hansel & Gretel
    is about a family, yes, but it’s also about the larger human family we are all a part of, no matter your background or economic situation, and the important connections we make in life. So just as Engelbert Humperdinck looked to create a new experience for his nieces, I hope that you too – and children of all ages – will be able to hear and see this piece in a new way.

    Prelimary set design illustration by S. Katy Tucker

    Don't miss Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretelon stage from February 6 to 21, 2020 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

    Posted in 19/20


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