Black Tie Opera debuts with ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in Whittier

by Amber Peters, community reviewer

A century-old opera can be relevant today. In fact, one favorite is swiftly becoming more relevant than ever. When it was written in 1893, the world was becoming increasingly industrialized and commercial, and technology was changing people’s lives irrevocably…  (Sound familiar?)

At that time more than 120 years ago, as now, people found themselves longing to unplug, as it as it were, and reconnect with nature and simpler times. In the Romantic movement in art and music, the lofty themes of the Age of Enlightenment were left behind for the supernatural and the magical, the Gothic and the mysterious. This escapism has lingered in popular entertainment ever since, and as a result, fairy tales such as the story of Hansel and Gretel have never fallen out of fashion.

The cast of 'Hansel and Gretel' from Black Tie Opera.  Photo by Amber Peters
The cast of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ from Black Tie Opera. Photo by Amber Peters

Attending Black Tie Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel on Saturday, August 16, it was tempting to think of the show as merely a kids’ story. But like all classic tales, it defies category. As I watched the characters onstage, I was struck forcefully by thoughts of my little daughter, and wondered what she would do if she found herself stranded outdoors all night, with another child as her only companion. Would she remember to pray, as Gretel did? Would she be aware of danger, as Hansel was? I cheered as the two children outsmarted and defeated the evil witch and were reunited with their parents.

The singers were demonstrably talented and well-cast. As the sister and (as I’m sure girls everywhere would agree) the brains of the operation, Gretel was sung by the soprano Christina Marie Harrell. Harrell approaches her role with a full, vibrant voice, which also has a youthful quality that perfectly portrayed the energy of a child, and with enough lightness to make her English delightfully intelligible. Her brother, Hansel, was sung by Marcela Pan, an Argentinian mezzo-soprano (and now longtime Angeleno) who expertly portrayed the innocence and stubbornness of a little boy in her movements and expressions.

Marcela Pan (Hansel) and Christina Marie Harrell (Gretel), with furry friend.
Marcela Pan (Hansel) and Christina Marie Harrell (Gretel), with furry friend.

The resonance the two singers achieved and the beautiful overtones of their blended voices in the duets were among the highlights of the performance.

The role of the overworked, desperately poor and frustrated mother was sung by Allison Coop, a mezzo-soprano with a beautiful, flowing voice, whose ease and experience onstage was evident in the realism and subtlety of her acting. She was joined by Christopher Jones, who sang the role of the father, and is also the company’s artistic director. Particularly striking was Jones’ entrance from behind the audience, traveling slowly up the aisle while singing “Tra la la la,” the drunken homecoming song. His performance was notable for the remarkable ringing power of his deep bass-baritone voice.

The show gained a delightful touch of whimsy and fantasy with the characters of the Sandman, who invisibly put the children to sleep at night in the woods, and the Dew Fairy, who woke, or tried to wake, the children in the morning. Both were sung by soprano Mary Haughie, who appeared as the Sandman in a sharp black suit and glittery silver scarf, then as the Dew Fairy in a shimmering white strapless ball gown. She cajoled the children in a colorful voice that glittered as much as any costume.

Leslie Schipa as The Witch, at what we hope is her most terrifying...
Leslie Schipa as The Witch, at what we hope is her most terrifying…

The unquestioned grand diva of the piece was its villain, the witch, sung by mezzo-soprano Leslie Schipa. She was first heard offstage, behind the audience on the left, then behind it on the right—a creepy sonic effect. Then Schipa herself appeared onstage and took control of the action. In a flowing, clinging black gown with hints of blue sparkle, wild, wavy hair and bright red lips, she resembled Cruella De Vil more than the traditional old crone. With a beautiful, commanding voice she enchanted Hansel and Gretel, while singing asides to the audience in a comical whine. We even heard a sly vocal echo of The Lord of the Rings, calling Gretel “my precious.” The audience stopped the show to applaud as she ended her aria with a prolonged trill on “brrrrr-oomstick”, culminating in a high note.

The accompaniment was provided by pianist Vladimir Khomyakov. A late addition to Saturday’s cast, he played with great skill and energy.

There is no entertainment that can beat the immediacy of live theater, or the immersive and transcendent power of live music. We feel truly connected to our past—we experience the music and the story in the exact same way our ancestors did, in all its potency. And if you prefer to sit on your own couch in your own living room, why not bring the opera to you?

That is the mission of Black Tie Opera, whose plan is to present operatic works to the public as they add them to their repertoire, and then make themselves available for bookings in private homes and at special events. It will be exciting for the musical community in the L.A. region to see this idea take off.

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