Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled prognosticating gloomily about the future of opera. The doomsayers have pointed to the ageing demographic of audiences as evidence that it has little relevance to younger generations. But, as Gershwin pointed out, it ain't necessarily so: if children are introduced to the art form early enough, they may develop a life-long enthusiasm. Opera companies around the world are waking up to the necessity of developing an audience through outreach to schools and families. At the Deutsche Oper, for instance, no fewer than 18 shows in the 2014-15 calendar are nominated family days, when minors are admitted for a mere €8. Aside from Mozart's Magic Flute and Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, on which many in Germany cut their operatic teeth, these include individual performances of works by Puccini, Verdi, Prokofiev, Berlioz and Prokofiev (with varying recommended lower ages). With this level of exposure from an early age, it is no wonder that the city has an opera-going population sufficient to support its three major opera houses.

© Bettina Stöß (2008)
© Bettina Stöß (2008)

And so, the first show in this seasonal run of Hänsel und Gretel was almost as interesting for the audience's behaviour as for what happened on stage. There was a pleasing buzz about the auditorium both before and, to a lesser extent, during the performance, with whispered remarks and questions audible from the surrounding seats. If the little lad seated in front of me is representative, opera still retains its power to engage: he bounced up and down in time with the more rhythmic sections and was rapt throughout.

In our visually over-stimulated age, it is somewhat rare for the curtain to remain down for the entirety of an overture, but it was presumably more usual in 1997 when Andreas Homoki's production had its debut. Considered from a pedagogic point of view, it is no bad thing for children to be introduced early on to the demands of listening to instrumental music without other aids, and a brief operatic overture with plenty of attractive tunes is as good a place to start as any other. The orchestra played well under Donald Runnicles, the Generalmusikdirector at the company. The brass hymn at the beginning was tender, and the whole was nicely shaped, although there was discernable sourness to the final chord.

The scenery was simplicity itself for Act I: the bright back-wall was only seen through a house-shaped outline, and the transition to the wood for Act II was ingeniously accomplished. The eye-catching appearance of the Sandman (a pleasing and effective Elbenita Kajtazi) involved her descending from the rafters on a ball, and then pulling down an enormous crescent moon after her. The Act II pantomime, normally featuring angels, was this time given over to clowns (coulrophobia must be less of a thing in Germany than in the Anglophone world). After some comic antics, they woke the children for a feast and a reunion with their parents (one wonders if everyone in the audience got that this was a dream sequence). The clowns woke and clumsily dispersed at the beginning of Act III, and the witch (briefly visible earlier) made a dramatic entrance from inside a box of treats, just as her later demise was through another trapdoor in the floor serving as the oven. After a deliberately drab Act I, Wolfgang Gussmann's costumes turned vividly prismatic in the magic wood in Act II – the clowns were all in yellow and red, and the witch's green hair stood up from her head like a celery stalk.

© Bettina Stöß (2008)
© Bettina Stöß (2008)

It was gratifying to note that even in a production specifically targeted at a younger demographic, the Deutsche Oper offered an A-list cast. The two chief protagonists, Stephanie Lauricella (Hänsel) and Kim-Lillian Streben (Gretel) were both first-rate singers, and their voices melded beautifully in the prayer duet. They were quite convincing as children, and their capers got some laughs from the younger members of the audiences, especially when Hänsel stuck out his tongue. The mother, played at short notice by Miriam Gordon-Stewart, sounded rather like a Wagnerian soprano (afterwards, I discovered that she has indeed sung Sieglinde). Markus Brück was impressive as ever as the drunken father, although even he was only intermittently audible when singing his first off-stage lines.

A pantomime element was introduced by the decision to make the witch a drag role. Jörg Schörner camped it up, grimacing and cackling satisfactorily and never breaking character even during the ovations. His sound was slightly scrawny, such as is often cultivated by those playing character roles (think Mime in Siegfried). The children's chorus at the end was secure, with the usual mixture of histrionic abilities. Perhaps the sight of their peers singing on stage will have inspired some of the younger viewers to get involved themselves. Now, wouldn't that be a fairy-tale ending?