Sitting in the cavernous main hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood feels a bit like sitting in a child’s toy box. The gift shop stuffed with shelves of goodies behind, floors and floors of trinkets looming above, and in front, a musical confection with all the dreamy delight of any child’s playtime, Pop-Up Opera’s rendition of Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
Pop-Up Opera’s dedication to presenting accessible opera in unusual spaces has them presently on tour, with just one evening spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. But the gaping space, with its odd mix of whimsy and darkness, lent itself well to a show that is best described in the same terms.
If it seems impossible to stretch the story of Hansel and Gretel into a full opera, never fear: this comes in at a brisk 90 minutes (with an interval) and fills out the beats of the traditional fairy tale – Hansel and Gretel are cast into the woods, get lost, find a gingerbread house, find that said house is inhabited by a child-eating witch they must defeat – with some heavy-handed Christian morality and giddy sequences of the two children at play. Plus a few fairies. The music (played solely by Berrak Dyer, also the musical director, on piano) is simple and expressive, supplementing the captions and performances by making the characters’ emotional state in a given moment crystal clear.
So about those captions. This is where Pop-Up Opera’s dedication to accessibility becomes most obvious. In traditional opera, of course, captions provide translations of what is being sung to make it easier to follow. Harry Percival’s captions sometimes offer fairly direct translation, but just as frequently provide colloquial paraphrases: “And what bloody time do you call this?” Or, my favourite, a simple, “Nailed it.”
I wavered between fears that this approach was condescending – surely we could appreciate the humour in the original lyrics, too? – and the fact that the captions were definitely very funny, and far more readily accessible than light humour obscured by poetic language would probably be. In the end, given that Pop-Up Opera’s stated goal is to make opera welcoming to those who feel hesitant about the art form, I can’t argue that Percival’s captions do anything but achieve that goal.
Infrequently, though, the production’s cheekiness confuses rather than clarifies, such as when the Dew Fairy, who opens Act III by waking Gretel from sleep, is transformed into a kind of courier service, accompanied by two hi-vis-clad assistants who proceed to loiter onstage in order to eventually perform the scenic transition into the Witch’s house. It doesn’t make much sense in context, either.
The overall design (by Fiona Rigler) is not elaborate. The costumes are stylized, but contemporary. There’s a miniature refrigerator in Hansel and Gretel’s home, which they depart to enter a forest made of mops. The Witch’s house, candy-striped and loaded with slots for treats to pop out of, is about as literal as it gets. Gretel sings to a pair of cardboard cut-out birds.
Director James Hurley and the company find a comfortable blend of intimacy and stylisation. Despite the close quarters, acting is neither unsuitably naturalistic nor jarringly exaggerated. Every performer in the company of five is delightful, fully embracing the story’s vacillations from sincere sorrow or fear into comic glee. This does sometimes create a slightly jarring contrast between the earnest performances and the captions’ occasional glibness.
Sometimes there are no captions at all. At first I thought the blank screen was an error, a technical glitch, but I quickly realized it was intentional. Then I found it rather distracting, wondering why certain sections weren’t being translated when others had been. And at last I surrendered to it, and almost came to prefer the moments when there was nothing to do but sit back, listen, and not worry about understanding anything more than what the combination of singer and music could convey.
For a company dedicated to soothing opera novices? Nailed it.
Pop-Up Opera’s Hansel and Gretel is on tour until November 19th. For more details, click here.