Simpson Opera takes on ‘Hansel and Gretel’ this weekend

by Emily Carey, Staff Reporter

INDIANOLA, Iowa — Simpson Opera is in dress rehearsals for their upcoming production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

The famous fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm is given sumptuous musical treatment in this late-Romantic opera that is a favorite in opera houses around the world, with music that evokes German folk tunes combined with a rich, Wagnerian orchestral palette.

The opera, performed in English, is led under music director Bernard McDonald and stage directed by Bruce Brown.

The original story of “Hansel and Gretel” itself dates back as far as the 1300s.

“[The story] comes from something that killed more people in Europe than even the Black Plague. It was called the Great Famine,” Brown said. “It was the period where there was no food and huge depression, a lot of people starved to death.”

After many versions of the story circulated Europe, the Grimm Brothers drafted their own, which had darker themes, including the abandonment of children.

“It’s got some creepy undertones we’re not going to play up,” Brown said. “Good over evil is the main theme, and the opera version itself kind of downplays the abandonment.

This year’s production is not Brown’s first experience with “Hansel and Gretel.”

“I sang the role of the father professionally, so the Houston Grand Opera was my first introduction to it.” Brown said. “I sang it in Vienna, Austria, for many years, and my daughter was actually in it as well as one of the angels.”

Senior Madeline Palmer-Chase, who plays the title role of Hansel along with Grace Peck and Natalie Gordon, said she felt joy when she saw the cast list.

“This is a role that a lot of mezzo-sopranos put in their repertoire,” Palmer-Chase said. “Last year, I played Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro.” Hansel and Cherubino are prime mezzo-soprano pants roles, meaning we play a boy but it’s a woman singing the role.”

“These two roles could be the bread and butter of a mezzo-soprano career, so I was thrilled to be cast because I get this part under my belt and can use it for future uses,” she added.

Senior Hannah Carlson plays the second title role of Gretel and shares the role with Hannah Friesen and Elaine Tilly.

“We got the cast list the week of winter break for finals week sometime,” Carlson said. “We had about a month to learn music. It’s a hard show musically, so it was a lot to put together, but it’s coming together!”

Carlson said the music of “Hansel and Gretel” has been the most challenging aspect of this production.

“This music is of the late Romantic era, which tends to have more accidentals and things outside the key unlike Mozart that’s going to be pretty much all within the key. There are a lot of weird lines that are chromatic and things like switching keys quickly, so you have to adjust your thinking,” Carlson said.

“Hansel and Gretel are only offstage for about 20 minutes, so we have an hour and a half of music to learn,” she said.

For Simpson Opera’s spring productions, it’s not rare to find roles triple cast. This adds a new challenge when it comes to stage directions.

“We have specific places they have to be for the lights and for what happens, but we left a lot of it up for individual improvisation during the rehearsal process so each one can make it their own, but they still have to be at certain points for the choreography,” Brown said.

Brown likes to use this tactic to prepare his students for roles at larger opera houses, which can cast the same role with up to seven or eight singers.

“You have to be able to have the same kind of blocking that works yet individuality within it,” Brown said. “That’s a reality in the business. Once in a while, we do a show with triple casting, our students get that experience which helps prepare them for the real world.”

Overall, “Hansel and Gretel” is a show that appeals to all ages.

“It’s such a great fairytale to begin with. It’s a story that a lot of people are familiar with,” Palmer-Chase said. “It also has some adult themes to it that people appreciate on a more intellectual level.”

Carlson believes while the music is a difficult level performance-wise, the audience will find it enjoyable.

“It’s going to be very Disney-esque and the music is very whimsical,” Carlson said. “The synthesis of the whole thing is going to be a really enjoying experience especially when people are already familiar with the story.”

“Hansel and Gretel” will be performed at 7:30 p.m Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Blank Performing Arts Center. Tickets are free to Simpson students and faculty. Tickets can be ordered online at