Once upon a time, two brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm wrote a series of bedtime stories. Not the kind that helped children drift off blissfully to dreamland, but rather ones that gave them nightmares. And when they awoke, they were very afraid.
Which was the point, says Scott Harshbarger, a Hofstra professor who teaches a course in fairy and folk tales. One of the most frightening and enduring of these Brothers Grimm tales, "Hansel & Gretel," comes to life onstage tonight and tomorrow as the Bronx Opera Company pays a visit to Hofstra University's Adams Playhouse. The English-language translation of the German opera by Adelheid Wette and Engelbert Humperdinck -- the 19th century composer, not the 20th century crooner -- offers an easy-to-follow introduction to the world of opera for kids, or adults who may be intimidated by, say, Italian librettos.
LET'S SCARE THE KIDS
"Hansel & Gretel" is a story of parental abandonment, which, Harshbarger says, was not unlike the Grimm brothers' experience. Their father died when they were quite young and, unable to support them in her sudden poverty, their mother accepted a relative's offer of boarding school tuition.
In the brothers' subsequent fable, a famine in the land causes Hansel and Gretel's father and stepmother to abandon them deep in the forest. Although they resourcefully find their way home, the scheme is repeated. The starving siblings encounter a gingerbread house, unaware that the residing witch feeds and shelters herself by turning children into gingerbread. But instead of being popped into the oven, Hansel and Gretel use teamwork to bake the witch instead. It's not known whether she comes out as sourdough or gingerbread.
According to Harshbarger, the fable may have had a geopolitical message. "Its main lesson is that together we can conquer an enemy," he says. At the time, the enemy facing the German people was the invading army of Napoleon.
"Most of fairy tales were intended to reinforce the status quo," Harshbarger says. "They're about preserving traditional values."
He cites "Beauty and the Beast" as an example. "It's a stand-in for arranged marriage," Harshbarger says. "It tells the girl who's about to be given away to some old man of means, 'Look beneath the surface, and you can make the marriage work.' "
But beware of agreeing to be an oven-tester for your mother-in-law.
LONG ISLAND 'SIBLINGS'
The Bronx Opera Company, directed by Michael Spierman, who's also its principal conductor, presents two annual productions in English with a 30-piece orchestra. The young women who alternate as Hansel and Gretel in the two performances are all from Long Island: Jennifer Caruana of Rockville Centre and Yiselle Blum of Port Washington (Hansel), and Allison Pohl of Lindenhurst and Natalia Salemmo of Franklin Square (Gretel).
WHAT Bronx Opera Company presents "Hansel & Gretel"
TICKETS $30, $25 seniors, $10 students
INFO 516-463-6644, hofstra.edu/hofstra entertainment