Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel

Are you familiar with the works of Richard Wagner? If so, Hänsel und Gretel could seem like a miniature Wagner opera. The musical vocabulary is similar, and the orchestration and harmonic language likewise.

When Wagner found inspiration in the riches of nordic mythology, Humperdink turned to the fairy tale tradition. Both landed in some sort of a fantasy world. And if a full-fledged five-hour Wagner opera seems a bit too much, then Humperdink’s little jewels should fit perfectly. 

hänsel und gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck
Engelbert Humperdinck

Premiere – December 23, 1893. Hoftheater in Weimar, Germany.

Composer –  Engelbert Humperdinck

Librettist – Adelheid Wette

Running Time – Roughly 1 hour, and 45 minutes plus Intervals if there are any.

Three Acts

Ouverture – 8 minutes 

Act 1 – Approximately 27 minutes.

Interlude – Hexenritt 4 minutes.

Act 2 – Approximately 23 minutes.

Act 3 – Approximately 43 minutes.

In German

Main characters

Gretel – Soprano. Poor young girl. Hänsel’s sister.

Hänsel –  Messo-soprano. Poor young boy. Gretel’s brother.

Peter / Father – Baritone. The children’s father

Gertrud / Mother – Mezzo-soprano. The children’s mother.

The Gingerbread Witch – Mezzo-soprano (Tenor). A Witch (what else?). 

Sandman – soprano

Dewman – soprano  (Can be doubled as Sandman.)

The only critical voices here are the children, as they need to be light and very natural. A good dramatic Mezzo-soprano singing Hänsel like f.ex. Amneris would be very wrong. It should be an innocent character just slightly darker than Gretel.

The Witch is sometimes sung by a tenor. And it is also possible to double her as the mother, Gertrud. I think that having the same singer doing both the good mother and the evil witch is a bad idea though. It often creates confusion, especially as there likely are children in the audience.

The names Gertrud and Peter only appear on the preface of the score. In the opera, they are never called anything other than mother and father.

The story is based on the German fairy tale of the same name published in the book Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.

Background – The Opera Hänsel und Gretel is set in…

Hänsel und Gretel is a so-called Fairy-tale opera (Märchenoper). The name indicates an opera set in a fantasy landscape, but it is somewhat loosely defined. Many regard Mozart’s The Magic Flute as the first example, but you could define it into existence much earlier than that. 

Just like many others in this genre, Hänsel und Gretel is particularly adapted for children. The name of the famous story would make it easy to lure kids to even come to the opera in the first place. Then having witches, fairies, and angels on stage with the main characters being children helps as well. 

Engelbert’s sister Adelheit obviously knew this and did what she could to smoothen the rather horrible tale in the Grimms’ book. Here, the mother is the children’s real mother, not the stepmother. She is not at all as evil as in the story but a rather nice woman trying her best to deal with troublesome children and the hardships a poor broom-maker’s wife has to face. In short, it’s a clean and polished opera without any disturbing elements.

Humperdinck sets it in the time of Fairytales in the land of Fairytales.

Courtesy of Francisco Peralta Torrejón     CC BY-SA 4.0

The Fairy Land of the Opera cannot be visited. But you could get close…


Would you like to see the forests where the Opera could have taken place? 




The very first melody from the orchestra in the overture is the famous Evening Prayer. It will return at the end of the 2nd act as the children go to sleep in the forest. And it will close the opera at the end. Listen to the horns in the very first bars.

First Act – At home.

On with the show…

In the first scene, we see the two siblings alone in the house. They are working at their chores, and they are quite hungry. They sing the beautiful melody Suse, liebe Suse which actually is a German folk tune from the 15th century. 

When Hänsel just can’t take it anymore from his rumbling stomach, Gretel reveals that the neighbor gave them a Jar of milk and that their mother is going to make a rice pudding when she gets home. They happily drop their duties and start dancing with joy:  Brüderchen, komm tanz mit mir.

The mother comes home in a very bad mood, angry at them for not having finished their work. When she gets a stick to hit them, they escape. But she accidentally knocks over the jug, breaking it and spilling all the milk. Furious she sends them into the woods to gather strawberries to at least have something to put on the table for the evening. Here, Humperdinck makes her pray to God for something to feed her children with. And she regrets her anger and having sent them away. She is a very different character from the stepmother in the original tale.

The father returns with food and money. Ra-la-la-la… He’s slightly inebriated, but he’s managed to sell all his brooms and made a good profit. They are saved, for now. But then the father says:

– But wait a minute… Where are the children?

When he hears about them being sent into the forest… To Ilsenstein, he is struck with horror. Doesn’t she know about the evil woman who lives there? The Gingerbread Witch? He sings:

 – Eine Hex steinalt… (an old witch…)

Together they rush out the door and away into the woods to find the children. 

The first and second Act is very often tied together with no interval. In fact, Humperdinck probably meant this to be. He wrote a 4-minutes Orchester interlude called Hexenritt – The Witchride, giving the stage crew time to set the new environment.

Second Act – The forest.

The children are deep within the forest. Again the Act starts with a simple melody. Gretel sings Ein Männlein
steht im Walde, a children’s song by August Heinrich Hoffmann.

They continue to gather the berries and soon the baskets are full. There’s a cuckoo sounding in the distance and they sing a short but exquisite duet. Kuckuck, Kuckuck, Eierschluck! They begin snacking on the berries and suddenly they’ve eaten them all. Now they’ll have to start over. So they head deeper into the woods. 

Meanwhile, it’s getting dark, and they realize that they are lost. Hänsel tries to reassure Gretel, as they begin to see strange shapes and lights. Hänsel shouts into the dark:

 – Who’s there?

But only his own echo answers (A child soprano from off stage.). Gretel is afraid and as the darkness slowly covers them and everything seems lost, a little man appears with a sack on his back. It is the Sandman. He sprinkles his magic sand on them to help them sleep.

 – Der kleine Sandmann bin ich…

So they prepare for spending the night under the trees. But before going to sleep they sing their evening prayer:

 – Abends will ich schlafen gehn

Remember the very first melody of the overture? They sing about the angels coming to protect them… Two at my head, two at my feet, two to my right… etc. And in the following pantomime, they dream about 14 angels coming down from heaven.

The interval between the second and third act can be omitted as well. If so, the orchestra pantomime at the end of the second act, as well as the opening for the third act offers enough time to reset the stage. This is usually not the case though, as there should be a ballet to the music of the 14 angels. If you close the curtain to change the stage, the ballet has to be cut.

Third Act – The gingerbread house.

At dawn, a new little fellow wakes them up. The Dewman sings Der kleine Taumann heiss ich. 

Gretel is the first to wake up. She greets the morning with another little masterpiece, Wo bin ich? Wach ich? When Hänsel too is on his feet, she tells him that she dreamt of angels. Hänsel is surprised, for he had the same dream. With newborn courage, they prepare to find their way back. Suddenly a house made of gingerbread appears before them.

They argue about what to do but when Hänsel breaks off a piece from the house wall and strange voice is heard from inside the house:

 – Knusper, knusper, Knäuschen… (Nibble, nibble, gnaw. Who is nibbling at my little house?)

hansel and gretel

The children freeze with fear but then, they go on to taste the treats. Hänsel and Gretel continue to eat the sweets but once again they stop in their tracks. The voice again asks what is nibbling at its house. Again they shrug it off but suddenly they notice that they are not alone. A Witch has taken hold of Hänsel, eyeing him hungrily. Hänsel struggles to escape, but the Witch just laughs at them.  When they finally manage to break away, she freezes them with a spell. 

 – Halt! Hokuspokus, Hexenschuß!

With Hänsel in a cage and Gretel frozen in place, the Witch goes into the house. Hänsel tells Gretel that he has a plan and that she should do whatever the Witch tells her to do.

Now the old story reveals itself, and we recognize many of the famous details. The witch tries to get Hänsel fat by feeding him with sweets. While Gretel sets the table the Witch gloats over her plan to eat the girl first by having her look into the oven and then pushing her into it.  She dances with her broomstick in gleeful anticipation of the feast.

 – Der Teig ist gar / Hurr hopp hopp hopp.

The Witch wakes Hänsel to see if he is fat enough, but when she tells him to put out a finger, Hänsel pokes out a twig instead, and the nearsighted old hag is sorely disappointed at how skinny he is.

Gretel sees the magic stick unattended, grabs it, and recites the unfreeze spell on Hänsel. She then manages to slip him the cage key. The Witch calls Gretel over to check if the cookies in the oven are baked yet, obviously ready to cook Gretel instead when she reaches into the flames. Gretel, pretending ignorance, asks the Witch to show her how it is done. The Witch explains but Hänsel, now out of the cage, helps Gretel to push the old hag into the flames. 

When the oven explodes, all the Witch’s gingerbread victims are suddenly transformed into real children, but frozen in place with their eyes closed. They ask Hänsel and Gretel to help them open their eyes. Hänsel takes the magic stick, recites the spell of unfreezing, and liberates the children. And the children’s choir sings:

 – Erlöst, befreit, für alle zeit (Redeemed, saved, for all eternity).

Another brand with religious overtones.

Peter is heard in the distance sadly calling for his children. When he and Gertrud arrive, Hänsel and Gretel jump into their arms. The witch is now herself turned into gingerbread, and everybody thanks God for their rescue. 

The last phrase sung by the whole ensemble is again the Evening Prayer from the end of the second act.  

What to look out for.

First Act.

Curtain-up – Suse, liebe Suse. Gretel’s and Hänsel’s first song.

6 minutes – Brüderchen, komm tanz mit mir.

9 minutes – The mother turns up.

11 minutes – … She brakes the jar and sends the children into the forest.

14 minutes – Ra-la-la-la… The father’s Happy-song.

24 minutes – Eine hex steinalt… The father’s witch-song.

26 minutes – Orchestra interlude Hexenritt.

Second Act.

Curtain-up – Ein Männlein
steht im Walde. Gretel’s second folk tune.

3 minutes – The cuckoo song.

10 minutes – Sandmann sings Der kleine Sandmann bin ich…

13 minutes – Halfway into the opera the children sing Abends will ich schlafen gehn.

17 minutes – The pantomime with the fourteen angels.

Third Act.

3 minutes – The dew fairy sings Der kleine Taumann heiss ich.

10 minutes – Bleib stehn ! Bleib stehn! They spot the witch’s house. (Check how it is done… Technically.)

14 minutes – The voice from inside the house: Knusper, knusper, Knäuschen… 

27 minutes – Der Teig ist gar. The witch’s Satanic brooms-song.

32 – 34 minutes – Gretel frees Hänsel and they both push the witch into the oven.

38 minutes – Erlöst, befreit, für alle zeit. The childrens choir.

Finale – The Evening Prayer once again…

Court theater in Weimar as it looked when Hänsel und Gretel was first performed.

Humperdinck and Wagner.

In the late 19th century, Wagner’s influence on German culture was omnipresent. In addition, Humperdinck was a true fan and admirer. They met in Naples, Italy in 1880, and Wagner, recognizing Humperdinck’s unique talent, immediately invited him to Bayreuth to work as his personal assistant. He stayed there for one and a half years working on the preparation of Wagner’s last opera… Parsifal.

He obviously learned a lot, but his great admiration somehow blocked his own creativity for almost 10 years. It wasn’t until he accidentally started working with Hänsel and Gretel that he freed himself from his Mentor.

Still, his style is definitely Wagnerian. During his life, he sometimes tried to adapt to the new Avant-garde tendencies (Arnold Schönberg). This is especially the case with his first version of the opera Königskinder. But after a while, he always pulled back and stayed well within the boundaries of traditional harmonics. He was orthodox and that makes him approachable to everybody.

One detail distinguishes him from Richard Wagner. And that is his frequent use of folk melodies. It is an additional feature that makes his operas readily available. 

How Hänsel and Gretel came to be…

Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, used to write little plays for her two daughters. In April 1890, she sent four handwritten nursery rhymes to her brother and asked him to set them to music. She wrote:

 – Of all the nonsense I’ve written so far, this one is my best and dearest. 

Humperdinck promptly put together a dance duet, an echo song, and a cuckoo song. He named it A holy nursery festival drama by Adelheid Wette, “Hänsel und Gretel”, as a humorous recognition of his late friend and instructor.

German composer Richard Strauss
Richard Strauß

Many years passed, and in 1889, Wagner’s widow Cosima invited Humperdinck to Frankfurt to complete her son Siegfried’s music studies. Humperdinck found the studies and socializing so stimulating that he was inspired to write a comic opera. Different plays were considered until Engelbert’s parents proposed “Hansel and Gretel” as a basis for a small-scale song play. But the composer still wasn’t convinced. 

Meanwhile, Humperdinck started going out with his parent’s neighbor’s daughter called Hedwig Taxer. She was the one who urged Humperdinck to think big and reconsider using the fairy tale. Eventually, the whole family was involved in trying to expand and refine the libretto. Within a month (September 1890) he had composed Sandman’s Song, the Griesgram-duet (Act 1), the Broommaker’s Entrance, and the Evening Prayer (based on an old melody). The short Singspiel was received with overwhelming enthusiasm by the circle of family and friends.

Now, Humperdinck had finally refound his creativity and worked on the piece for a full year. The result was full opera… Maybe short compared to Wagner, but complete by any standard.

The premiere was set for December 14 in Munich. An influenza epidemic broke out and it had to be postponed until 23 December 1893 and moved to Weimar. The preparation was short and chaotic. Some music was lost in the mail and they had to omit the Ouverture. The conductor was Richard Strauss who had insisted after having looked through the orchestra score. He writes:

 – It is a masterpiece of great proportions, and I bow in the greatest admiration and offer my heartiest congratulations on its success… you are a great composer and you have given the Germans an opera they hardly deserve…

In fact, Hänsel und Gretel was an immediate success. And it has kept its popularity. It is around 10th place in most performed operas, and it’s the second only to The Magic Flute in the German Language.

Short facts about Humperdinck and Hänsel und Gretel.

  • british pop music
    Engelbert Humperdinck… The singer, not the composer.
    Hänsel und Gretel was an immediate worldwide success. It made Humperdinck economically independent for the rest of his life.
  • The premiere, as normal, was to be followed by a limited number of performances in Weimar. But in the following year alone, in Germany, no less than 50 theaters played it successfully.  
  • The only other opera by Humperdinck that had a similar reception, was Königskinder which premiered in Monaco in 1897. In it he invented Sprechgesang… A sort of reciting somewhere between singing and talking. Today it’s mostly associated with Arnold Schönberg.
  • Later he rewrote Königskinder cutting out the Sprechgesang. The new version premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910. It was the second time in history a world premiere by a major composer was given in the US.
  • Humperdinck was highly regarded as a teacher. One of his students was the famous collaborator of Bertold Brecht, Kurt Weill.
  • He always aimed at being recognized as a “real” opera composer writing operas for adults. His greatest achievement was still that of creating theatrical music just as adapted for grown-ups as for kids. In that he is unique.
  • In 1965 the young British crooner Arnold George Dorsey changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck after the composer. He would become a big name in the international music industry for over forty-five years, with more than 150 million records sold worldwide.
  • The song “Evening Prayer” is often used as a stand-alone piece in churches and other religious contexts.
  • The Asteroid Humperdinck 9913 is named after the composer.

From the 1941 movie One Foot in Heaven.

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.