Toronto’s Joel Ivany has made a name for himself and Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company he co-founded, by putting a contemporary spin on classic works. He didn’t waste any time when starting on “Hansel and Gretel.”
“It was interesting to see the story as a new dad,” says Ivany, whose son was 2 years old when he was asked by Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef if he wanted to head up a new production of the classic fairy tale.
Ivany jumped at the chance. The 1893 opera by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck started life as a particularly Grimm fairy tale of lost children and a hungry witch living in a gingerbread house. Humperdinck’s sister, Adelhaid Wette, took out the grisliest bits as she turned it into an opera libretto.
He says some of his creative thinking was inspired by his son, who kept having a dream that scared him so much that he initially couldn’t speak about it. “Then he finally found the words and told me how it was about him having a beard that wouldn’t stop growing,” Ivany recalls.
The director’s big change is how and where “Hansel and Gretel” is set. Using the latest animation and production techniques, the story is now set in modern-day Toronto. “Because that’s where we are,” says Ivany matter-of-factly.
Even though the libretto isn’t changed, Ivany has also tweaked the point of view — we will see everything as the young brother and sister might. For example, Ivany uses the mother’s anger at the start of the opera, when she comes home to discover her children have not done their chores.
“In the kids’ eyes, she becomes a monster, so she starts to grow hair and fangs,” Ivany says. “The scariness comes from their imagination and creativity.”
Because this production hangs its visual impact on computer-generated graphics, there isn’t much from a child’s imagination that can’t find its way on stage.
Ivany says the creative team spent two residencies at the Banff Centre in Alberta to get the visual side of the show started — Banff has studios with green screens and animation capability that one usually doesn’t find at an opera company’s carpenter shop.
They opened up a whole new world of visual possibilities. “It’s hard to imagine shows without projections now,” Ivany says. “It’s just so transformative.”
And there are no set changes to worry about; it all happens instantly.
The regular COC run will be sung in the original German — with an excellent cast as well as about 30 members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company conducted by COC music director Johannes Debus.
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But this production of “Hansel and Gretel” is getting two extra shows in English. These will feature the members of the COC Ensemble Studio and as many as 70 children from community choirs around the GTA.
“These kids will have a chance to sing at the Four Seasons Centre on the mainstage, which is pretty special,” says Ivany. It will also get a chance for more parents to enjoy the opera with their children.