What was I thinking?! Thoughts from Hansel and Gretel set designer Larry Hancock

Hansel's candy-cane cage

Hansel’s candy-cane cage

Often, I am asked, “Who came up with that design?” Of course, when we’re talking about the set or costumes or lighting, the expected answer is the set or costume or lighting designer, and it is. But at the same time, it isn’t, as opera is an enormously collaborative art form, and such ideas seldom come from just one mind. In the case of Opera San José, we first establish with the stage director, before we even negotiate a contract, the kind of opera we’re looking for, what period it should be set in (and it isn’t always the period indicated in the score, even at OSJ), what we can spend (the budget is not to be taken lightly), and how many weeks can be scheduled for the build and when the build must start.

Then, for both sets and costumes, the designer, using information (research) and requests from the stage director, begins making sketches. When the sketches have the nod from the stage director, work begins in earnest, measurements are made, color is applied, fabric swatches are found for costumes and for sets a scale model is created. Of course there’s a lot of back and forth in this process, technical problems are solved, materials are explored, lumber and steel are ordered, construction drawings are made, fabrics are found and purchased, and patterns are cut. A great many people are involved in the production of an opera, and we are not addressing the performers in this article. That would make an army.

In this article, I have been asked to share a little about the creation of the set, as for Hansel and Gretel, I designed the scenery, which is unusual (this is my 6th set design for OSJ over the past eight years) and I suppose has raised a little interest, probably because I’ve had such fun doing it, and have been so very impressed with the work of the entire scene shop. Our shop always does wonderful work, but when it’s your own design being realized, I have to admit, it’s a bit of a thrill, every time.

It was about a year ago when Hansel and Gretel stage director Layna Chianakas and I first sat down to talk through the opera. We were in the scene shop and hadn’t even discussed which edition of the score we would use, but both of us had images in our heads. The chief image in my head was a forest of enormous trees executed in watercolor. Layna could see a great deal more. She’s brilliant.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

We both did a fair amount of research, and Layna found some wonderful images. One of them, a forest in Ireland, came to life as a huge watercolor forest. From there the first step was a matter of creating a cottage in that forest, which I originally painted as if built of timbers. Layna immediately recognized a lost opportunity to show the longtime poverty of this family and asked if the timbers could be large branches. The cottage was made of materials found in the forest and transformed into a hut with a sod roof. Renee Jankowski, our scenic charge artist, volunteered to repaint this piece for the set model, and she also repainted the model piece for gingerbread house the next week. So these two large pieces became a group effort, and are the better for it. Everything retained the quality of watercolor illustrations. From there it was a short step to make a peppermint stick cage, and the most amazing of all ovens.

Layna asked if the oven might look like a deep-sea fish with enormous, bared teeth. After a quick image search the perfect fish flashed on my screen. From that I made a paper model, and our props master, Lori Scheper-Kesel, used it to fashion a model from clay. Perfection! This is an oven with a mouth big enough to swallow a grown man. It has glowing eyes. Smoke rises from its chimney. Fearsome!

gingerbreadAThe gingerbread children, in this case a fence of them, were first made of plywood that was then upholstered and finally decorated with glistening candies and frosting. At this writing, the gingerbread house is being painted. I dropped in today as it was getting its first coat of color. It, too, will be glistening with gumdrops, cookies, and candy. A dentist’s nightmare!

bedOf all the props, the oven is the most astonishing, but the one everyone wants to take home, including me, is the bunk bed. All the furniture in the hut, the stools, bench, table, everything, was constructed to look as if made from things the family could find in the forest. Their whole lives depend on the forest. They make brooms from sticks and switches for a living. It isn’t much of a living. They go hungry much of the time, and even then berries from the forest stave off starvation.

It won’t do to look for symbolism in Hansel and Gretel, or a moral, or a message. It just isn’t that kind of tale. It’s about two children who get in trouble, mostly because the family is so poor and their mother feels so guilty that there is so little food, and tonight, no food at all. They are not sent into the forest to be gotten rid of, as in the Grimm tale, rather, they are sent to find berries. It comes as a complete shock to the mother that there’s a witch living in that forest. It’s a surprise for the children, too.

mother natureAWhen they realize they are lost and bed down for the night, they are protected by 14 angels, but these angels are rather like woodland sprites and one of them is Mother Nature. The costumes were brilliantly designed by Elizabeth Poindexter, and I stood for quite a few minutes today watching her execute the elaborate hand work these forest costumes require. But the great surprise is in the last scene, when the gingerbread house is revealed and the witch comes out.

The witch is always a wild combination, both comic and terrifying. Few things are as frightening as an insane person who intends to eat you, and this witch does not disappoint. In glamorous 18th-century paniers and a magnificent wig, this witch begins in such a charming way, so pleasant, until she claps Hansel in a cage and sets Gretel to fattening him up. And this witch grows less attractive over time, and when she goes on her wild ride, she does it on a pink Segway (loaned by Segway Santa Cruz), paniers swinging in the breeze!

By the way, I haven’t the mentioned lighting designs by Pamila Gray, as we won’t see this work for a couple of weeks yet. We begin moving into the theatre on October 30, but I do expect to see some lighting magic, as we’ve been talking about what glows in a forest at night…

While we’ve been having weeks of fun building sets, props, and costumes, the conductor, stage director, and singers have been working like Trojans, but they seem all smiles every time I drop in on rehearsals. There is something wonderful about working on very good music; it makes everything worthwhile. We’ve had two treats this fall, with Falstaff, which is a brilliant score, and now with the most performed opera by a German composer, Hansel and Gretel.

Now, we can only hope you will enjoy our realization of this wonderful adventure in the forest as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to the stage. I do believe children will certainly love it, and what better way to show a child how a story can spring to life through music and acting and all the elements of theatre? I encourage you to bring a few children with you to see these two clever children get themselves out of a pretty hot predicament.