November 2, 2011

Hansel and Gretel: Media Darlings

Virginia Opera’s first production of Hansel and Gretel in 31 years opens in Norfolk in a couple of weeks, and maybe you’ve noticed:

Them Grimm boys are “in”.  They’re trendy... hip... hot... happenin’...

Item:  NBC just premiered a new prime-time drama called simply Grimm.  It's described by the network as “inspired by the classic Grimm’s fairy tales".  A homicide detective finds out he’s descended from a race of beings who are fated to protect Earth from ogres, witches, yada yada.

Oh, and vampires.  You want ratings, you gotta have vampires, everyone knows that.  Duh.

Item:  ABC just premiered a new prime-time drama called Once Upon a Time.  Executive Producer Adam Horowitz says "We kept circling back to the idea of fairytales. ...They're full of magic and heroics and fear and joy. But we also found fairytales are full of all these unanswered questions. Like why is Grumpy grumpy? ...And did the Evil Queen really try to kill Snow white simply because of vanity? With Once Upon A Time we set out to explore those questions..."

So: Snow White in modern-day Manhattan. Will there be vampires? I don't know, but geez - there must be a way to work a couple of 'em in somewhere.

Guess what? To the surprise of the more cynical TV critics, both new shows did pretty well in the ratings - better than Pan Am or that fiasco about the Playboy mansion.

And don't forget Sondheim's wonderful musical Into The Woods.

And then there's *ahem* ME!! GLENN WINTERS!! In 2008 I was commissioned by Virginia Opera's Education Department to compose a new touring opera for our Spectrum apprentice artists to perform around the state: Tales From The Brothers Grimm.


Let me tell you, it was no small feat to provide, as stipulated in the commission, three little mini-operas adapted from Grimm which would be age-appropriate for grades K-5.  Have you read these stories?

In a word, they are gruesome.  Torture!  Death!  Birds pecking out people's eyes!  OMG!!  What nut-case ever thought these would make for nice cuddly bed-time stories for three-year-olds?

Here's my favorite.  It's short, and the tone is characteristic of a large number of the Grimm's oeuvre.  It's called The Willful Child and I now quote it in its entirety.

"Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do what her mother wished.  For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed.  When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again.  Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

HOLY CRUD!  all-RIGHTY then!

So now you’re wondering if I used that one in my opera.  Well, of course not, silly.  Although since last week’s post in which I revealed that I ruined Christmas for a bunch of innocent children, let’s just say that I can see why you might not have complete confidence in my judgement.

But really - why were stories like The Willful Child ever told in the first place?  Who makes up a tale like that?  For what purpose?

One can imagine that the original narrator may have been a frustrated parent faced with an obnoxious brat afflicted with what in our enlightened age is called “Oppositional Defiant Disorder”.  You’ve seen frazzled mothers in the produce section of the supermarket, dragging along a screaming, tyranical tot.  It's not a stretch to imagine Mom saying “Go right on with this behavior and see what happens, why don’t you!  You know what happens to disobediant little kids like you?  Well once there was a child who....”   It’s a more elaborate version of the stock line “If you keep making that face, you’re face is going to freeze that way!”

So are Grimm’s stories cautionary tales?  Is that their purpose?  

Hansel and Gretel go into the woods, and almost get eaten by a cannibalistic witch.  Red Riding Hood went into the woods as well.  How’d that work out for her?  Yep - eaten by a wolf.  Not good!  

So: should we conclude that these woodsy stories are warning us about the dangers of the woods?  “HEY!  FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE - STAY OUTTA THE WOODS!”

Um, no.  In fact, Grimm’s stories tell us quite the opposite.  As a matter of fact, the lesson of Hansel and Gretel is that we all have to go into the woods.  If we want to become competent, independent, problem-solving adults, we have no choice but to go in the woods.

The next few blog posts will examine this concept, with the aid of a remarkable and classic book, Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment.

Last one in the woods is a rotten vampire!


  1. Kathleen: thank you for auditioning today. We will be in touch... ;-)