COC’s newly-imagined Hansel and Gretel brings an exciting series of firsts for Anna-Sophie Neher

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Anna-Sophie Neher; photo: Gaetz Photography

Anna-Sophie Neher’s excitement about the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) new production of Hansel and Gretel, co-produced with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, is unmistakable. First, for the opera itself: Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 operatic interpretation of the Grimm story features a whimsical score that combines nursery rhymes with rustic folk music, layered with a Wagner-inspired orchestration. (As befits a story about siblings, Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette wrote the libretto.)

And Neher is even more excited for the way the COC has re-imagined the mainstage opera by transplanting Hansel and Gretel from a wooded forest to current-day Toronto, and adapting an accompanying version for young opera-goers. Opera for Young Audiences (OYA): Hansel and Gretel will be sung in English and performed in an intermission-free 90 minutes with a mass children’s chorus, comprised of five different community choirs from across the GTA. Both versions are directed by Against the Grain Theatre’s Founder and Artistic Director Joel Ivany, and Neher’s enthusiasm stems from her roles in both productions. She is the Sandman and Dew Fairy in the mainstage German version of the opera, and takes on the title role of Gretel in the Opera for Young Audiences English-language adaptation

“It is definitely going to challenge your expectations of this old fairytale!” Neher enthuses. The mainstage version is set in an apartment building in Toronto where everyone knows each other and has a strong sense of community: “You get to watch other people live their normal life while all of the opera is happening.” As the siblings make their way through this contemporary high-rise neighbourhood in search of food, they must depend on their wits and each other to outsmart the dangers they encounter, including the infamous witch. The production incorporates digital storytelling, using projections designed by S. Katy Tucker to help audiences understand what is happening in the siblings’ heads and imaginations.

Through its 21st-century urban perspective, Hansel and Gretel explores universal themes of community, poverty, hunger, and family, along with pressing topical concerns, like climate change, environmental sustainability, and personal wellness. This is “an amazing way to address all these issues,” Neher affirms: “Art makes you think, it challenges you; it makes you see the world through the eyes of someone else.” And opera provides the unique combination of “many art forms uniting to tell a story”: “In this opera in particular, words, images, music, dancing, and storytelling are all there to bring us joy and to dig out our inner child’s imagination, but also to show a beautiful community where everyone helps and respects each other.”

Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel, photo: Michael Cooper

The experience has been a tremendous challenge, which is another source of Neher’s excitement. “First of all, of course, there are a lot of words for a brain to compute – especially having to learn Gretel both in English and in German.” For another, this is Neher’s first time having to play several different characters with different subtext and who must display different reactions to the same music and actions. With her voice type, she is accustomed to playing little girls like Gretel, but the role of the Sandman/Dew Fairy has been “particularly full of surprises and challenges”. “Our director Joel Ivany has also decided to create a new character to embody these two magical creatures: the Hoarder. The Hoarder, a very old and beloved man, lives in the apartment upstairs, and he transforms himself through the imagination of Hansel and Gretel into the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. So another first for me: I get to play an old man!” 

Originally from Gatineau, Quebec, Neher is a member of the COC’s prestigious Ensemble Studio training program for young opera professionals. Her star is on the rise, with growing list of credits that includes the roles of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro (National Arts Centre); Clorinda in WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story (Opera for Young Audiences [OYA]); and First Wood Nymph in the COC’s Rusalka this season. Contemplating a career that is well underway, she is reflective: “I am so thankful for everything that is happening in my professional life, and I feel lucky to be able to call this my job. I think that every time I sing with an orchestra or with friends is a highlight for me.” Pressed to choose a special career highlight so far, she picks the singing the role of Lavia in the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Hadrian last year, which was her debut at the COC. “I was surrounded by world-class singers and humans,” she recalls proudly.

For some young people, OYA: Hansel and Gretel may serve as their introduction to opera. Who better to offer advice to first-time young opera-goers than Neher? She fell in love with the artform – and even decided she would become an opera singer – when she saw Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as a teen. Her advice is simple: first-time opera goers should “just enjoy themselves! Laugh out loud if they want, cry if they feel like it. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy opera, especially for our OYA: Hansel and Gretel.” 

And after the production? She hopes that they will leave with “music stuck in their heads and with a desire to be open and kind to the world around them . . . maybe even bake some cookies for an old man!” 

(l-r) Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel, photo: Michael Cooper

News You Can Use

What: Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck | Conductor: Johannes Debus | Director: Joel Ivany | Set & Projection Designer: S. Katy Tucker | Costume Designer: Ming Wong | Lighting Designer: JAX Messenger | Price Family Chorus Master: Sandra Horst | Dramaturg: Katherine Syer

Cast: Emily Fons (Hansel), Simone Osborne (Gretel), Russell Braun (Peter), Krisztina Szabó (Gertrude), Michael Colvin (The Witch), Anna-Sophie Neher (Sandman/Dew Fairy

When: On stage until February 21, 2020

Where: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: coc.ca  

What: COC’s Opera for Young Audiences: Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck | Conductor: Derek Bate | Director: Joel Ivany | Assistant Director: Julie McIsaac | Set & Projection Designer: S. Katy Tucker | Costume Designer: Ming Wong | Lighting Designer: JAX Messenger | Dramaturg: Katherine Syer

Cast: Joel Allison (Peter, father), Simona Genga (Gertrude, mother), Jamie Groote (Hansel), Anna-Sophie Neher (Gretel), Matthew Cairns (The Witch), Lauren Margison (The Dew Fairy/Sandman)

When: 2 matinee performances: February 13 and 15, 2020

Where: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: coc.ca 

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2020

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