Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Help save the youth of America

December 10, 2006

Graham Clark as the witch and Lucy Schaufer as Hansel
Photo: Robert Millard 2006

I finally got around to seeing LA Opera’s new production of Hansel und Gretel this weekend. As I mentioned before, given how good this season has been here in LA so far, it’s hard to be too disappointed about this muddle. It was clear that the opera had pulled out all of the “family-friendly” stops with an English-language translation, cookies for the kids and a meet-and-greet with the cast in costume afterwards. Apparently from looking around, a lot of parents and other adults bit at the half-priced ticket offer for kids under 16. Not that any of these are bad ideas. I certainly think trying to have productions once and awhile that encourage younger audiences is reasonable. The problem is when they turn out to be so lifeless and empty as this one was.

This production seemed filled with too many eager to please gimmicks that made everything seem desperate. Much of this must rest on the shoulders of director/designer Douglas Fitch who had less of an overall vision than a string of cute ideas. Fitch started his opera directing career in Santa Fe in 2005 with a new production of Turandot that was colorful but hollow. He appears not to have learned anything from experience yet and continues here with that proud tradition. The set’s pieces were cumbersome and often moved very slowly, turning moments of magic into moments of tedium. In the end, I find it hard to believe that any of the children in the audience found this entertaining. Alan Rich in his recent LA Weekly column noted that today’s children may be too savvy and sophisticated for this particular entertainment. He archly suggests that Salomé may be more their speed. I tend to disagree however. Having worked with children for many years, I think there is still quite a lot about this opera that could be wonderful and engaging to them. The problem is that kids are often much smarter than adults give them credit for – a fact which ultimately sinks this production which seems to think their interest can be bought rather cheaply.

I should mention some of the silver lining in this cloud. Alan Gilbert and the LA Opera orchestra were superb as was Lucy Schaufer as Hansel. Schaufer is one of those performers, who like Netrebko, can actually act as well as sing. She is a joy to watch and listen to at the same time - an excellent, but ironically rare talent in the opera world.

Here’s hoping this is just a small bump in the road in an otherwise great season. Up next for LA, Conlon returns for Tannhäuser and Mahagonny in the spring. Plus, in other exciting news, Marilyn Ziegler has just given 4 million dollars to LA Opera to support one of music director James Conlon’s favorite and most important projects, the advocacy of music suppressed or destroyed under the Third Reich. LA Opera will begin a multi-year project presenting operatic works by many of these composers including Zemlinsky, Ullmann, Korngold, and others beginning with two concerts in March of next year and hopefully expanding into fully staged works for later seasons. I saw Conlon and members of the LA Philharmonic perform a semi-staged version of Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis in 2005 and if that was any indication, we have a lot to look forward to.

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