November 10, 2011
Penn State, Sandusky and Hansel and Gretel
The great operas also provide continuous commentary on the current events of any generation; any time period - including today.
Look at the headlines in today's paper; opera knows all about them.
Case in point: Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel has lessons to teach us about the tragic sex-scandal debacle taking place at Penn State University.
Let's consider the witch. She's bad. Terrible, in fact. She's a cannibal. Does she have any good qualities? She does not. Is there anything inside her wrinkled witchy self to respect at all? Nope. Her cannibalism sort of puts the kibosh on that subject.
And that's how we like our villains, isn't it? 100% awful. Villains should revel in creating havoc; their eyes should roll crazily in their sockets while they drool, cackle and shriek. They get extra points if, when really provoked, they can turn into fire-breathing dragons, a la Maleficent from Disney's animated Sleeping Beauty.
Maleficent has a counterpart in the opera world: Iago from Verdi's Otello. The moment when Iago gets in touch with his rottenness is a deliciously over-the-top bit of bluster and snarling animus: the famous "Credo". Once we hear the opening notes, no super-titles are needed; THIS is one bad dude.
However... even Iago didn't eat little children! So Humperdinck's witch is worse, right? Absolutely! A monster, a lunatic, a demon, a..... okay, you get it.
It follows, then, that the music assigned to this apparition will be grotesque, doesn't it? It will surely be creepy and traumatizing. It should send small children to bed with nightmares; it should put the elderly in peril of heart failure; it should be enough to raise Rod Serling from the dead shouting "OH GOD, MAKE IT STOP!!"
So arm yourself with prozac and prepare for hair-raising horror with this typical utterance of Madam Witch.
Feeling a bit disappointed? I can't say as I blame you; it's -- what's the word? -- ordinary. Kind of jolly. Not scary at all. And here's the thing: that's all you get, witch-wise, from Humperdinck. The witch's lines range from grandmotherly to gleeful. She doesn't glower or snarl. The hocus-pocus spell she lays on Gretel shows a momentary promise of creepiness, but it flickers out into another bit of prosaic tunefulness.
Her music is banal. And therein lies the composer's brilliance. You know who else was banal? Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt's book chronicling his war-crimes trial was entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It appears that, if you didn't know what Eichmann did for a living during his years as Hitler's henchman, you would have liked him; if he lived next door, you might have asked him to water your plants while you were on vacation. You might have invited him over for dinner.
This is an observation that leads directly us directly to the topic of conversation at every breakfast table during the second week of November in 2011: a piece of human filth named Jerry Sandusky, who victimized children in a scandal of rampant pedophilia that may yet bring a great university to the brink of ruin.
Hansel and Gretel knows all about Sandusky and his ilk; it knows that those who prey upon children are in fact always ordinary in appearance; always normal in their initial human interactions. Just as the witch lured Hansel and Gretel with the temptation of a house made of gingerbread and sweets, Sandusky lured his victims with the cover of a charitable foundation established to help troubled "lost" children. Predators establish a bond with those they intend to abuse, whether in an oven or in a shower stall.
Hmmm... I guess Eichmann had some experience with ovens as well, didn't he?
Somehow we expect monsters to look like dragons. It would be easier for children to avoid them if they foamed at the mouth and roared and had, oh, fangs maybe. Instead, they look like grandma.
Or like a stand-up, church-going straight-arrow football coach.
Don't be disappointed with the blandness of the witch's music in this wonderful opera; it's among the most psychologically astute characterizations you'll encounter in the pantheon of great opera evil-doers. And it explains a great deal about the downfall of Joe Paterno and the disgrace of officials who should have known better.