NI Opera Get Tasty With Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera's fairy-tale opera brings witches, cannibalism and the economic crisis to the Grand Opera House

‘No way can another opera company open and close here. This time it has to work, I feel that very passionately.’

This the view of Northern Irish soprano Rebekah Coffey, and she’s referring to the decidedly chequered history of operatic provision in the region. Previous efforts to run viable companies (Opera Northern Ireland and Castleward Opera, for instance) invariably crashed into the twin buffers of chronic underfunding and public indifference.

‘I’ve thought long and hard about why we haven’t been able to generate operatic audiences in Northern Ireland,’ says Coffey. ‘There’s a problem with linking audiences from the different genres, I think. There’ll be people who will come to hear me in recital, but they won’t come to the opera. I’ll say, “Would you like to buy a ticket to try it?” and they run away.’

Holywood-based Coffey does, however, see hope in the establishment, in 2010, of Northern Ireland Opera. The company opens a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera Hansel and Gretel at Belfast’s Grand Opera House on November 24. Coffey will be singing the role of the Sandman in it.

‘The work that NI Opera has done in such a short space of time has laid really strong foundations,’ says Coffey, referring to the highly acclaimed productions of Puccini’s Tosca and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld that the company has staged since its inception.

Coffey is especially excited about making her NI Opera debut in Hansel and Gretel. ‘It’s my favourite opera. It was one of the very first things that I really felt at home in when training at the Royal Northern College of Music, and it was the first professional role I sang when I left college. Since then I’ve reprised it 50 or 60 times for different companies.’

Humperdinck’s opera has obviously been good for Coffey’s career, but her reasons for adoring it go beyond the narrowly personal. ‘I love the score,’ she comments. ‘It just grips you in the heart, especially the pantomime scene when Hansel and Gretel fall asleep. If you’re not moved by this score, I don’t think you can be.’

NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears agrees. ‘It’s a masterpiece,’ he states. ‘It appeals not just to Wagnerians, who love its orchestration, but also to kids who’ve never heard of Richard Wagner. There are very few operas that appeal to such a broad spectrum as Hansel and Gretel does.’

Targeting the younger members of the audience is a key priority for Mears, as it was with his recent production of Orpheus in the Underworld, which triumphantly updated the content of Offenbach’s comedy to a modern, 21st setting, and with a libretto by the comedian, Rory Bremner.

‘With every production that I direct I try to aim for an experience that will really engage the audience,’ Mears adds. ‘We want the kids who see this production to have a more positive view of opera. Opera can be for everyone, not just for people in dinner jackets.’

The storyline of Hansel and Gretel Humperdinck used when writing his opera in 1893 was taken directly from the Grimm Brothers version of 1812. It is, as Mears puts it, ‘a classic fairy-tale, so iconic. In itself that’s something that appeals to children.’.

With its explicit references to famine, child poverty and cannibalism, however, the opera also has a darker side, one which Mears feels has striking relevance to the economically straitened times we live in.

‘The first act is like social realism,’ he says. ‘It’s about this very, very poor family who aren’t able to feed their own children, and who are socially deprived. So it doesn’t shy away from the big issues, it’s not just cutesy by any means.

‘I think children appreciate that,’ Mears continues. ‘I think children can deal with tough issues, they appreciate not being underestimated. And as we know from their love of Roald Dahl, for example, they also love a bit of cruelty and violence and blood!’

This mixture of classic fairy-tale content with themes of serious contemporary relevance makes Hansel and Gretel ‘genuinely a family show’, as Mears puts it. ‘It appeals just as much to adults as it does to children.’

The new production is also the first time that NI Opera has worked together with the Ulster Orchestra on a fully staged production, a collaboration that Mears is clearly enthusiastic about.

‘I think it’s the first time the Ulster Orchestra have been in the pit for an opera for a very long time,’ he says. ‘From what I hear they’re very excited about the challenges of performing opera and tackling a new piece. We really want to initiate relationships with organisations like the Ulster Orchestra, which have got such a big pedigree here.’

Mears is also investing heavily in local vocal talent. With the exception of veteran English tenor, Graham Clark in the role of the Witch, all the soloists are young Irish singers. Mears makes no apologies for this. ‘It’s very, very important to us,’ he insists, ‘the idea of nurturing young talent, from Northern Ireland of course, but also from the Republic.’

Mears also emphasises the quality of the Irish singers he has so far employed in this year’s NI Opera productions. ‘I think per capita that the island of Ireland must have one of the most amazing rates of producing singers with fantastic talent, not just as opera singers but also as actors.’

As far as his new staging of Hansel and Gretel is concerned, Mears promises a show that looks up-to-date and doesn’t shirk the opera’s deeper content. ‘We’ve set it in the here and now,’ he says. ‘We’re living in this difficult social climate, there’s an economic crisis, there’s recession. And in many ways Humperdinck is tackling those issues.’

Mears is also hugely relishing the setting in which his new show will be presented. ‘For my money the Grand Opera House is one of the most fantastic theatres in the UK and Ireland. It’s fantastic, it has a great acoustic, a great atmosphere, a great history.

‘Historically this is where opera happened, this is where Pavarotti made his UK debut,' Mears recalls. 'And of course we’re based here, we’ve got an office here. In some ways we kind of feel that we’re bringing opera home.

Hansel and Gretel is at the Grand Opera House from November 24 - 26, Riverside Theatre, Coleraine Dec 12 -17 and Derry Millennium Forum on Jan 12. To find out more check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.