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Witches and Wonderland

In Os´s spectacular fjord-side culture house, a witch with a long silver tail is dancing with a bloody saw and cackling horribly. Hansel is trapped on top of a hospital trolley and Gretel is hiding behind lurid pink boxes.
Welcome to the opera!

Bergen National Opera is rehearsing Humperdinck´s wonderful work for all ages, a new production with a singular lack of sugar and gingerbread but with all kinds of spookery and gruesome effects guaranteed to delight fiendish young minds and thoroughly unnerve their parents.  

Right now we´re watching video of skeletal hands flickering on the front of a particularly grimy oven, and working out how Gretel will stuff the witch, her tail and her massive bouffant wig into the cooker without dislocating a limb. As it is, one hand is dangling limply out of the door. “Don´t light the legs too much; it´s confusing” says director James Bonas to lighting designer Martin Pettersen, who sits behind a jittering computer screen and a battery of switches. In the gloom just before her demise, the witch has sharpened an unsavoury looking spike, Gretel has snatched the magic wand and is singing ‘hocus-pocus’. So the siblings will defeat evil, kill their horrid captor, find their hapless parents and live happily after…  

The brief from BNO to Bonas, designer Tom Paris and music director Stephen Higgins was to create a ‘suitcase’ opera, to be taken on tour from north Hordaland down to the southern Rogaland town of Bryne, performing in eight venues and scooping up school class 7 as participants in the show. We have five wonderful young Norwegian singers in the principal roles (the witch doubles as Hansel and Gretel’s somewhat despairing mother). Then, a school class local to each of the venues will have a walk-on role and a glorious chorus to sing – all accompanied by a virtuosic piano version of the orchestra score. Along the way, we invited a couple of school classes in to evaluate the process as the opera grows through rehearsal – Bergen´s Montessori school had plenty to say on their visit last week: ”Can´t hear the words; why does she (the witch) do that? We want more scary bits!”  

But by now, the suitcase has become a truck, the production has grown from a few flat-pack boxes into a set resplendent with huge, albeit gorgeously painted, boxes, and the props list bulges with oversized blood-bags, grotesque stripy candy sticks, brooms and glittery shoes. The painted floor – a critical part of the decoration – coming by van from Poland, is currently AWOL somewhere north on E16. It might arrive this evening, but … The driver´s voice is lost in a tunnel.  

The video, created by Siren Halvorsen and Fredrik Rysjedal, is fantastic – as we watch, birds flock across walls, trees grow spindling branches, and beetles creep over sleeping bodies in the forest. Lit by flickering, trembling skeletons, the boxes transform into eerie nightscape as Hansel and Gretel shiver and whimper.  

Tomorrow, Class 7, Os Barneskole is coming for their first rehearsal. They´ve had workshops with BNO´s Ann-Terese Aasen, but now they´ll put on their hoodies-with-wings and become angels. Next, they don orange boiler suits to emerge as the lost children who find freedom at the opera´s end – a moment as tear-jerking as any in music.  

The magic of Humperdinck´s story is of course the astonishing score itself – rich with melody, beautiful, surprising and evocative. But no other opera story so utterly grips, bewitches and touches the specialist listener and the youthful beginner alike.  

So, parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles bring a child. Or just come. Come, and be one yourself.  

Mary Miller 

18 November, 2017

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