Home sweet home: taking Hansel & Gretel back to its roots for Scottish Opera

Anna Burnside picks her way through the oversized sweets and shadowy trees to discover why Bill Bankes-Jones was so eager to undertake the project

AILISH Tynan is lying on the floor, surrounded by sloping tree trunks, enormous foam chews and giant cellophane-wrapped sweeties. Around her, four stage managers are moving the edible parts of a gingerbread house. Various others have clipboards, fat musical scores, and a vast and unwieldy roll of impenetrable diagrams. Then a piano starts and a man on a high stool begins massaging the air. Tynan is up on her feet, a dirndl skirt swishing over her jeans and T-shirt. Then she opens her mouth and the most delicious sound comes out.

This is the opera Hansel & Gretel in its component parts, the nuts and bolts that make up the richest of art forms in the process of being screwed together. Tynan – who director Bill Bankes-Jones addresses as “the greatest soprano in the world” – is Gretel, fresh from singing the same role at Covent Garden. Kai Rüütel, who has a sore throat and is wearing a hoodie, is Hansel. This being opera, no one is in the least surprised that an Irish soprano and Estonian mezzo-soprano, both females in their twenties, are singing the roles of brother and sister lost in the 19th-century German woods of the Brothers Grimm imagination. In English.

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To make the magic happen, Scottish Opera has gathered, in a rehearsal studio in an industrial estate in Maryhill, French conductor Emmanuel Joël-Hornak, Welsh mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones (the terrifyingly seductive witch), 22 primary school children (gingerbread men who come to life), 14 stage school teenagers (creepy androgynous angels in blond wigs), a hidden chorus of singers who lurk in the wings, various other principals, to say nothing of their understudies, the chap who audio-describes the performance for the visually impaired and the grandmotherly lady who makes sure the youngsters stop playing Angry Birds while waiting to be called on stage.

This does not include the orchestra – all 65 of them, including the extra clarinet, strings and percussion needed to do justice to Engelbert Humperdinck’s lush score – who are rehearsing half a mile away.

Bankes-Jones surveys the proceedings from behind two vases of red tulips on a wooden table. Tablet is eaten; the conductor wanders up to chat to the singers. This does not happen at all operatic rehearsals; Bankes-Jones is at the cuddly end of the directing spectrum. “I still encounter people who come to rehearsal and wait to be shouted at. I only shout very, very occasionally,” he says. “When the occasion absolutely demands it.”

Readers familiar with opera – and there are plenty out there, Scottish Opera having increased its audience by 21 per cent last year – may query the outsize Haribo in an English language Hansel & Gretel. David Pountney’s candy-free 1987 translation, set in a bleak 1950s housing estate, has become the default English language version. In fact high-concept productions – Rigoletto in a gentlemen’s club, Cosi Fan Tutte with mobile phone gags – have become the norm.

Bankes-Jones, however, has wearied of the overweening idea. “I like to get the piece, look hard at it and work out what the author is trying to do. It would be nice to think I’m mature enough not to need to put my own stamp on it.”

On first discussing the possibility of directing Hansel & Gretel for Scottish Opera, he made it clear that he would do his own translation. “I told them I didn’t think any of the ones out there were any good,” he recalls. He offered to send them a sample scene, panicked about whether he would have time to do it, and then zipped through act one on the train home.

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“It’s something I had been doing in the back of my mind for a long time, running over the German phrases, thinking how that would get into English. Like doing a crossword.” (If you are a multilingual opera director who enjoys that sort of thing.) The result is very clear, vernacular language, free from the familiar strangled, back-to-front sentences. At one point Tynan asked if she could change a line from “I will not dance with stinky boys” to “With stinky boys I will not dance”. Would she say that, Bankes-Jones asked. And when she admitted she would not, that was her answer.

The next day there is a full run through. The studio – custom-built to replicate the stage at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, to allow for full-scale rehearsals without access to the actual building – is rammed. One bank of seats appears to be filled with American Apparel models. Turns out that they are the angels, teenagers with theatrical aspirations who are willing to spend a good deal of time hanging around before walking, very slowly, on to a stage wearing Issey Miyake-style nighties and enormous golden wings.

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The man responsible, head of costume John Liddell, is here “just to listen. When I see it in the theatre, all I can look at are costume, costume, costume. I don’t hear a thing.” This production is, for him, a gentle stroll compared with the punishing triathlon of other operas. “Five principal singers with one costume each? Straightforward. Sometimes we have 75 in the cast with three costume changes each.”

Getting the angels’ wings light enough to wear on a harness was, he admits, a challenge. With the props department’s help, he came up with an expanded polythene base with a gleaming plastic coating. With the wings sorted and the last of the little boys’ authentic lederhosen having arrived from Germany, he is positively relaxed.

Acts one and two, which roll together without a break, proceed smoothly. Rüütel whispers to preserve her voice but everyone else gives it what would be called, if this were karaoke and not opera, laldy. The father, Scottish Opera regular Paul Carey Jones, strides manfully through the trees, all robust baritone and enormous chopper. Harassed mother Shuna Scott Sendall could have come straight from the school run.

As Jones shimmies around her gingerbread HQ it’s hard to credit that the witch is often sung by a man. One had already been cast; Bankes-Jones turfed him out. “The thinking is that a woman can’t make a scary noise. Well, Marian can make a beautiful noise and that is much more frightening.”

Designer Tim Meacock, inspired by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, has put her in a pink and white stripey costume as sickly as a stick of rock: “She’s a cross between the Child Catcher and Truly Scrumptious,” he says, which makes her hefty industrial child-baking oven (which the director describes it as “Clyde-built” with a suggestion of Auschwitz) all the more unnerving. A witch with green warts and a big nose is not frightening,” he says. “Having her sugary makes it worse.”

The third act ends with the family reunited and the former gingerbread men throwing their hats into the air. The assembled administrators, wig-makers and subtitlers applaud and Bankes-Jones pronounces himself delighted. “I genuinely find it frightening. All of it. I really think they might get eaten by a wolf in the woods, that the witch might get them.”

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The greatest soprano in the world agrees. “I love working in Glasgow. The cast is fantastic, there is top quality singing. The crew really care, they’re as good as top opera houses with ten times the budget. I even like the weather.” «

• Hansel & Gretel is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on 4, 8, 10 and 12 February, and Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 14, 16 and 18 February. www.scottishopera.org.uk