Arts & Culture

Review: An open letter to the nasty lady at ‘Hansel and Gretel’

Sarah Larson, from left, as Hansel, Peter Marsh as the Witch and Anya Matanovic as Gretel, with the witch’s candy house set behind them perform in Seattle Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
Sarah Larson, from left, as Hansel, Peter Marsh as the Witch and Anya Matanovic as Gretel, with the witch’s candy house set behind them perform in Seattle Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Courtesy

This was going to be a review of Seattle Opera’s thoroughly delightful production of “Hansel and Gretel.” But because any concert experience is affected by what the audience does, and because my experience at McCaw Hall Sunday included the behavior of those around me, I am writing the review as an open letter to the really nasty lady in front of me — and all others who behave like this at classical music events.

Dear lady at the opera,

I’m sure you felt compelled by some sense of duty when you turned around and hissed nastily at the elderly couple next to me, who were murmuring quietly during the overture. How were you to know she was hard of hearing, and he was letting her know what was happening? And I’m sure you thought you were acting righteously when you complained to the ushers, so that the couple got a second public telling-off during intermission.

But I wonder, did you realize the effect you were having on future opera audiences? At least one young person nearby witnessed your nastiness, and was shocked that opera was the kind of place where you are not only forbidden to talk, you are subject to such rudeness. She and others may think twice about coming back — which will be a problem for the art form when older folks like you have passed on.

I also wonder, were you, in your fierce policing, even paying attention to what was on stage?

We were experiencing an opera which was all about children — their playfulness, their twisting of rules, their vulnerability and courage. It’s a perfect opera for children to attend — of course, they too might talk occasionally. Hopefully you noticed the beautifully-matched voices of Sarah Larson as Hansel (rich as honey) and Anya Matanovic (sparkly as lemonade), and the captivating way they turned the stage into their playground, riffing off their relationship (Gretel bossy-but-fun, Hansel grumpy-but-brave) as they went. Hopefully you weren’t too busy chastising others to appreciate the acting of Marcy Stonikas as the mother and Mark Walters as the father — neither singing up a storm but both embodying the exhausted anger or drunkenness that often accompanies poverty.

While you were hissing at my neighbor, I was reveling in Barbara de Limburg’s set: an entire shanty made of packing cardboard and tape. Surrounded by bare tree trunks and a greenish backdrop, it felt like it was at the bottom of a Louisiana swamp. In Scene 2, the embodiment of poverty became more acute: a forest of burned, decaying trunks draped with trash. And finally, a witch’s house made of giant boxes of gummy bears, Oreos, Sourpatch Kids and oversize pink soda — a stunning delight and one of many visual jokes. Others include a nerdy raincoated Dew Fairy (delicate-voiced Amanda Opuszynski); a cross-dressing witch who starts out in hot pink skirt-suit and ends up a truly frightening travesty of blood-smeared lips and lacy bra (Peter Marsh); the hilarious foodie dreams hovering over the children as they slept; some racy double-entendre jokes about broomsticks.

This, lady, is the direction Seattle Opera wants to go — traditional opera brought into a world that we all live in, which is much more relatable than some 19th-century German forest.

But that 19th-century world seems to be the one you live in, where Victorian manners forbid any audience expression except for clapping at designated moments. If you’d read page 21 of your program, you would have discovered that in Mozart’s time, audiences talked, ate, came and went and expressed their opinions during performances. These days, people do the same at opera’s grandchild: rock concerts.

And the overture — which was when you did your hissing — was in fact originally designed to cover up audience coming and going. Humperdinck wrote plenty of gorgeous scene-change music, all of which was played with finesse and languorous grace by the opera orchestra under Sebastian Lang-Lessing. This, too, was originally composed to cover up noise and movement.

If Seattle Opera is truly hoping to reach a new generation by better reflecting our region (as director Aiden Lang recently announced), then this goal might include people like you being more tolerant of opera-goers interacting out loud with the music and each other.

After all, this is an art-form about humanity, not perfection.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Hansel and Gretel

Who: Seattle Opera.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Oct. 26, 28-29; 2 p.m. Oct. 30.

Where: McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle.

Tickets: $25-$145.

Information: 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org.

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