I was seriously excited when I first read that Opera Queensland and shake & stir theatre co would be presenting their Hansel & Gretel school holiday workshop. With lockdown still affecting the majority of us, suddenly we are being offered a very sweet treat in the form of Hansel & Gretel – one of the most popular operas ever written. The tension between cruel caregivers, confectionary temptation and a foreboding forest is intricately balanced in this ancient fairy tale. Now, this Humperdinck classic has been reimagined by Opera Queensland and shake & stir, especially for primary students in the 21st century.
I spoke with Mark Taylor, Opera Queensland Director of Learning, Regional and Community ahead of the workshops to find out more about this innovative program, how it was possible during COVID-19 and the how-to of engaging young people in opera.
Hansel & Gretel is one of Opera Queensland and shake & stir’s repertory. They have toured the show through regional schools in Queensland for three years to remote towns such as Normanton, Long Reach and Charleville. Mark, however, tells me that the performance this school holidays will be something totally unique. The original cast has been assembled but this time they will work alongside existing recordings from previous performances in a new interactive guided viewing of the opera.
Hansel & Gretel will transport viewers to a contemporary world of magic, fairies and sweets with its enchanting story of survival and family bonds, taking the audience on a journey deep into the forest which is full of surprises and learning opportunities. A video stream of three of Opera Queensland’s most energetic young performers will be interweaved with interactive opportunities where Hansel (Jessica Low – Mezzo Soprano) and Gretel (Irena Lysiuk – Soprano) will teach some of the songs and a dance from the production.
As we go back to normality it’s important to start engaging and entertaining people again. Ultimately in these COVID times, we wanted to offer something that was engaging to students that allows within the challenges around performing, Mark said.
Flexibility and innovation are key in order to deliver programs in a time that still requires safe social distancing. Mark explains that this interactive version of Hansel & Gretel was developed specifically to deliver a school holiday program with West Village, that allowed for distancing. West Village (West End, Brisbane) is a great supporter of Opera Queensland, and provides the location for the interactive opera.
In order to meet the current safety standards, certain modifications were made. Opera Queensland and shake & stir opted for a minimal cast, capitalising on previous performances filmed in high quality. By comparing the previous theatre format with the new interactive guided version, they realised they were able to bring passive moments alive. Now audiences can learn both song and dance from Hansel & Gretel instead of watching them from their seats.
The brand-new reimagined Hansel & Gretel honours the characteristic dark touch of the Brothers Grimm and retains the songs from Humperdinck’s opera. It sees a touch of modernising with both the delivery (on-screen fairies) and content – think Facetiming mum. The digital elements allow for a maximum number of characters but ultimately creates a cleverly lean touring model. The theme of stranger-danger is still present, but a bigger one emerges as the siblings are challenged to respect each other in the dangerous situation they find themselves in. By working together as a family unit, they are successful in the end.
All-star performers, Jessica Low (Hansel) and Irena Lysiuk (Gretel) will be familiar to Opera Queensland fans. Their job as performers encompasses several layers, performing their roles, creating interactions with the audience and cueing the show. At the end, they step out of their roles to take questions, unpack the show, and look at the idea that opera is ultimately narrative told through song. As Mark explains, they were chosen specifically for their ability to juggle this seamlessly.
As the leader of our engagement program, I am very passionate, as we are as an organisation, to make sure that students are getting young, effervescent, engaging artists but also artists that are of a calibre who we put on our main stage. We take our work with young people very seriously and these two are some of Opera Queensland’s most respected artists but they also have a wonderful capacity to engage with kids, and they certainly know how to have fun, Mark said.
But don’t expect too much pressure to learn, while curriculum links are made, school holidays remain about joy and fun in these workshops.
I think for all people during this period, whether you’re normally going to work, or you’re learning from home or you’re going to your team sports or ballet lessons, as art does, it takes you away, it gives you a break from the world for a moment. We hope to take these students to the enchanted forest with Hansel & Gretel without them knowing they are learning a few things along the way, he added.
For those keen to be transported to another world these school holidays, bookings can be made via the West Village website.
The Hansel & Gretel school holiday workshop runs from 9:30am – 11:30am Monday 6 July to Thursday 9 July at West Village, 97 Boundary St, West End. Suited for primary school-aged children, parent/guardian to also attend. Safe social distancing will be maintained throughout the workshop. Tickets are $15 per child – includes bento box morning tea by Cheeky Poke.