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Big and bold opera is back!

PORTopera returns to full production with 'Hansel and Gretel,'
and chooses a story that deals with hard times.

By Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

Fairy tales are often fun. But some fairy tales reflect the harsh realities of tortuous life.

Hanzel & GretelFrom left: Angela Mortellaro, Maria Zifchak, Heather Johnson.
Martha Mickles Photo.

Such is the case with "Hansel and Gretel," by the 19th-century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. PORTopera will present the story this week at Merrill Auditorium.

The fully-staged production, which will be sung in English, does not mince words, nor does it pull back from the tale's troubling issues of a child abandonment, abuse and hunger.

"We are not shying away from the negative elements in this story," said Dona D. Vaughn, PORTopera's artistic director. "We do have a father who drinks. We do have a mother who is frustrated by her capabilities and lashes out at her children. We do have a sense of abandonment. And then there's the witch who eats children - not a pleasant topic."

That said, the PORTopera production is indeed appropriate for the younger set. Vaughn broke from tradition, choosing to present the opera in English instead of its native German tongue to make it as accessible as possible, and she has assembled a 21-member children's chorus from the community's diverse ethnic populations so young people may recognize performers who reflect their cultural background.

This week's production - at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and a kid-friendly matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday -- also represents an important milestone for PORTopera. The Portland-based company scaled back its presentation last summer because of the economy, offering a concert version of highlights from its previous 14 productions instead of a full-scale opera.

Given that, Vaughn wanted to come back this summer with something big and spectacular to allay opera fans' fears of losing Portland's professional opera company, which is in its 16th season.

"We felt it was important to return to a full-scale production. People missed it, and we certainly heard from many who said they missed it," Vaughn said.

PORTopera intends to present a lively version of "Hansel and Gretel," with a 52-piece orchestra, 14 dancers and seven professional opera singers, several of whom have sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and other national companies.

The costumes are colorful, and the set features gnarly finger-like trees emerging from the forest to ensnare the wayward children.

The production will also have vaudevillian qualities to it, and children will recognize the story's familiar themes, including the over-arching theme of good prevailing over evil, Vaughn said.

"We chose 'Hansel and Gretel' because we wanted to do something to encourage a new and younger audience," she said. "We expect that there will be people in the audience who have never seen an opera before, and a lot of those people will be children."

This year's cast features several performers who have sung with PORTopera before. Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, who was a PORTopera Young Artist in 2001, will sing the role of Hansel.

Since her time in Portland, Johnson has performed with the New York City Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, among others.

Angela Mortellaro, a soprano, will sing the role of Gretel. She and Johnson recently performed these roles together at Sarasota Opera in Florida.

Tenor Robert Brubaker will sing the role of the witch. He sang in "Siegfried" at the Met last year, and is scheduled to sing the role of Chairman Mao in "Nixon in China" next season at the Met. He appeared in PORTopera productions of "Madama Butterfly" and "Tosca."

Weston Hurt, in the role of the drunken father, has appeared at New York City Opera, Seattle Opera and Dallas Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak sings the role of the stressed mother. She is a Met regular, and also has sung at Dallas Opera and Cincinnati Opera.

Rachel Hauge and Emily Murdock, PORTopera Young Artists this summer, round out the cast.

Israel Gursky returns for his second stint as PORTopera conductor. He has been assistant conductor with the Washington National Opera since 2001, and last year led a concert with Placido Domingo and Virginia Tola.

Many opera companies tone down the harsher elements of the story and present it as a holiday show. Given the current economic situation, with unemployment approaching 10 percent and families struggling with their finances, Vaughn thought it might be topical to play up the family's struggles.

The children ache for food, the father comes home drunk and the mother muddles through her unhappiness by taking her anger out on the kids. They trust in God to help ease their passage.

A refrain we hear often is, "When past bearing is our grief, God the Lord will bring relief."

The popularity of "Hansel and Gretel" comes and goes, Vaughn said. It's not like "Carmen" or "La Boheme," which are perennial favorites.

But, she added, it's an important piece, and one that's appropriate for our times.


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