Hänsel und Gretel learning pack

Hänsel und Gretel Synopsis from Glyndebourne on Vimeo.

An opera in four acts composed by Engelbert Humperdinck – libretto after the poem by Adelheid Wette, inspired by a story by the Brothers Grimm


The main vocal parts in Hänsel und Gretel:

Hänsel (Mezzo-soprano)

Gretel (Soprano)

Mother (Soprano)

Father (Baritone)

The Witch (Mezzo-soprano)

The Sandman (Soprano)

The Dew Fairy (Soprano)

The basics of the plot

Having been sent into the forest by their mother to search for food, Hänsel and Gretel become lost. (Unlike the original fairy tale written by the Grimm brothers, the mother is not an evil character who leads the children into the woods).

The children find the Witch’s house and are lured inside. The Witch intends to fatten Hänsel up in order to eat him, but she is overpowered by Gretel who pushes her into the oven, and thereby releases the souls of all the other children who have already been eaten. Hänsel and Gretel’s parents eventually manage to find them again and they celebrate together by the remains of the Witch’s house.


Act One (The broom-maker’s house in the Harz Mountains)

Hänsel and Gretel are doing chores. Both are bored and hungry, and to cheer themselves up they start to sing and dance. Their games are interrupted by their Mother, who is angry to find them playing instead of working. In her anger she knocks over the milk jug, losing what was to have been supper.

She sends them into the forest to gather strawberries instead. Wearied by the family’s poverty, she sinks into a chair, only to be woken by the return of her husband. She is irritated to find him tipsy, but calms down when he produces a sack full of food. When he enquires after Hänsel and Gretel, he is alarmed to hear they are in the forest: he warns of the Witch who lives there, and both parents set out to look for the children.

Act Two (The wood)

Hänsel and Gretel happily gather and eat strawberries. When night falls, they realise they are lost, and are frightened by the mysterious shapes in the mist. But a Sandman appears and settles them. They say their evening prayers, and go to sleep. The mist around them turns to clouds from which angels appear, who guard the children from harm.

Act Three (The gingerbread house)

At dawn the Dew Fairy comes to wake Hänsel and Gretel. They are excited to see a gingerbread house not far away, but when they begin to nibble at it, the Witch emerges and captures them, casting a spell. She puts Hänsel in a cage, telling Gretel that her brother needs fattening.

She releases Gretel with a spell, in order that the girl may help her with the oven. But Gretel uses the spell to free Hänsel, and as the Witch demonstrates to Gretel how to check the oven, the children push her into it. As the Witch dies, the fence of gingerbread people is transformed back into motionless children. Hänsel invokes the formula for breaking the spell, and the children jump up and thank Hänsel and Gretel for saving them. The Mother and Father appear, and the family is reunited. All celebrate when they find that the Witch has herself been transformed into gingerbread.

History of Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel started as a song cycle of four songs to form part of a play written by Humperdinck’s sister. She had intended the play to be performed by children, for children, and therefore wanted a create a small scale, intimate setting. This domestic style suited Humperdinck’s compositions well, and it wasn’t until much later that he developed his ideas into a ‘singspiel’ (opera with dialogue), and finally a full scale opera with fairly virtuosic passages for the characters of Hänsel and Gretel to sing.

Although he had worked with Wagner and admired his operas, he wanted to capture more of the German folk style in his own work, and used influences such as Felix Mendelssohn to produce a work which tried to move away from the big romantic sound of the time. That said, it is easy to hear the Germanic influences of the turn of the 20th century in the score of Hänsel und Gretel. The build up of tension and drama in the orchestral parts through each of the acts makes a huge contribution to the darker side of the story and helps develop the often sinister atmosphere for the audience.

Richard Strauss conducted the first performance at Christmas 1893, and the staging of later productions often creates a pantomime feel.

Strauss loved the work, and praised it highly. He felt that the fashion for opera in Germany had moved on from Wagner, and believed that unlike Humperdinck, his own work was still too Wagnerian at that point!

Engelbert Humperdinck – biography

(Born Sieburg, Germany, 1 September 1854, died Neustrelitz, Germany, 27 September 1921)

Humperdinck started producing works whilst he was still quite young and his often intimate style of composing reflected the artistic atmosphere in the home in which he grew up.

In 1880, after studying at Cologne University, he had the opportunity to work for Wagner at Bayreuth on the production of his opera Parsifal. Inspired by Wagner, and with the encouragement of his friend, the composer Richard Strauss, and his publisher Schott, he turned his ideas for Hänsel und Gretel into a full opera. When it was first performed in 1893, it became one of the most successful German operas ever, despite the fact that it was considered to be the only great work he produced (he wrote five other operas which sank into obscurity).

In his lifetime he became far more famous in Germany as a teacher and lecturer, being seen as a ‘one-hit-wonder’ as a composer.

In 1966, at the suggestion of Gordon Mills (who was Tom Jones’ manager), the singer Gerry Dorsey changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck. This change revived his failing career, and helped him become a household name!