Canadian Opera Company is gearing up for their staging of Hansel and Gretel, a classic German opera that will be given a modern-day Toronto twist.
The COC’s production, the fourth in their 2019-2020 season, is set in a present-day Toronto apartment complex brought to life through large-scale projections.
“There’s been a lot of talk around the technology that we’re using and it’s exciting,” says director Joel Ivany. “We can do things that we couldn’t do before and it’s really hard to imagine doing it another way.”
Ivany, Founder and Artistic Director of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, last directed for the COC’s mainstage with Bizet’s Carmen in 2016. He hopes that audiences both young and old will be enraptured by the youthful energy of Hansel and Gretel.
“I have a five-year-old child and I get to see life through his eyes now,” said Ivany. “I see things through his eyes that are second nature for us [adults].”
The opera is based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name, where brother and sister Hansel (Emily Fons) and Gretel (Simone Osborne) leave their parents Peter (Russell Braun) and Gertrude (Krisztina Szabó) and are then kidnapped by a cannibal Witch (Michael Colvin), only to escape by outwitting their captor. German composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote his self-described “fairytale opera” version in the 1890s and since then, it’s been a favourite at opera companies all around the world.
“The goal that we’ve had is: how can we make this appeal to a nine or ten year old but also to a 70 year old,” said Ivany. “It’s tough, because it’s a huge gap.”
The COC’s 2020 staging is unique, as the traditional setting of a forest has been swapped out for a Toronto apartment complex. Multiple apartments on two different levels make up the set, a design choice Ivany and his team progressed towards throughout their creative process.
“One theme that is all over the whole opera is poverty,” says Ivany. “Governments both north and south of the border created government housing. By creating these big buildings and putting people in them as a solution. (We) naturally gravitated towards an apartment building and idea of ‘who are our neighbours?’”
The production features Canadian soprano Simone Osborne as Gretel. Osborne, whose successful career in Canada and abroad was launched when she became one of the youngest performers ever to win the Metropolitan Council National Council Auditions at just 21 years old. She previously sang Gretel during her time at the University of British Columbia.
“It is a balancing act to find the seven-year-old Toronto kid and then put her on stage,” says Osborne. “Making a couple thousand people in the audience feel that in your physicality and voice is tough.”
Osborne insists the process of slipping into the character of Gretel starts from the moment she enters the rehearsal space in the morning, where she and Emily Fons (Hansel) start messing around and engaging in horseplay.
“You can’t act like kids,” Osborne said. “You’ll never sell it.You have to completely embody a child and be yourself at seven years old. Anything else will look like a grown-up pretending to be a kid, and that will not read.”
Also in the cast is the Irish-Canadian tenor Michael Colvin as the Witch. Ivany explains that the creative team has let him run loose to explore his over-the-top characterization of the Witch, a role played by both men and women depending on the production.
“He’s really putting himself out [there] vocally and character-wise. He’s not singing it preciously, which is fun.”
Along with the seven subscription performances, there are two English-language performances starring members of the COC Ensemble Studio and children from choirs around Toronto. Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef told Ivany at the start of the process about his wishes for the two community-involved performances.
“The big goal of the company was to introduce a community choir to sing the performance,” says Ivany. “The [community-based] children’s choir addition helped us make more sense out of the modernization of the piece.”
As for what Ivany wants people to take from this particular staging of Hansel and Gretel, he hopes patrons both young and old can return to their youth.
“It makes us ask questions like why do we stop, when do we stop [being kids], when do we become adults. What happens if we take ourselves back to what it was like to be a kid?”