Fresno State’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ opera will fatten you up with glorious music

Gingerbread houses? Yummy. Cannibalism? Scary.

Fresno State’s Opera Theatre presents the family production “Hansel and Gretel” this weekend. The production’s Hansel, played by Abigail Cano, loves the gingerbread part. As far as the cannibalism goes — well, that’s what you get with traditional fairy tales.

Pictured above: Laura Castro, Abigail Cano and Aunika Bull in a scene from ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ Photo: David Hunter

The production plays two performances: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3, and 2 :30 p.m. Sunday, March 5, both in the Fresno State Concert Hall. Tickets are $15 general. There’s a small seating capacity in the hall (and a very large number of students involved), so it’s best to book ahead.

Here’s my conversation with Cano.

Q: True story: When I was a kid, I had a book of Grimms tales with a depiction of the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” on the cover. Honestly, it terrified me. She was pointing a long, bony finger and enticing the reader with a fat piece of cake slathered with frosting. Ah, the nightmares … Anyway, what was your take on fairy tales as a child? Do you remember your reaction to “Hansel and Gretel”?


A: I always loved fairy tales as a child, but hated the villains! I loved a good happy ending and enjoyed the fantasy of the stories. Any movie with song and music drew me in so that love often pulled me to fairy tales. With “Hansel and Gretel,” I remember being spooked by the witch wanting to eat the children, but a real-life gingerbread house….that’s every kid’s dream! Looking at the story now, those kids are smart! They fought hard and saved their own lives, no grown-up heroes needed.

Q: Tell us about the operatic version by Engelbert Humperdinck. Does it change the storyline in any significant way?

A: Humperdinck has slightly adjusted the story but the main framework is there. Mother and Father are poor and struggling to feed their children. When Mother comes home, she finds Hansel and Gretel have been playing and have done none of their chores. In her anger, Mother knocks over and breaks the milk jug. The only food in the house is gone and she is distraught. How will she feed her children? She sends Hansel and Gretel out to the woods to gather strawberries. Father comes home with a satchel full of food after a successful day at work. He asks where the children are only to hear they have gone into the forest. Father is worried and tells Mother of the witch who lives in the forest and eats children. They both run off to look for their children.

Meanwhile, Hansel and Gretel are picking strawberries in the forest. They begin playing as kids do and eventually become lost. They are terrified and the Sandman appears and puts them to sleep. They dream of being surrounded by angels and reuniting with their parents. In the morning, Dew Fairy approaches and gently wakes the children. After waking, the students spot a gingerbread house in the forest. They are so excited and hungry that they begin eating from the house. The Witch sees them and captures them in rope. She tries to lure them into the house with all of the food she will give them, but the kids are unwilling and escape. As the children walk away, the witch places a spell on them and brings them inside. She feeds Hansel in an attempt to fatten him up. Hansel and Gretel work together to trick the witch and push her into the oven. They celebrate and run off with baskets of food. Suddenly, the oven explodes! From the oven comes all of the Gingerbread Children the Witch has made. Hansel and Gretel break the spell and all of the children celebrate together. It is then that Mother and Father find Hansel and Gretel and everyone celebrates together.

Q: You play Hansel. Have you ever portrayed a male on stage? What is the experience like?

A: This is my first time playing a male. I was nervous when given the role, but wouldn’t have had it any other way. It has been so fun to just be goofy on stage! Luckily, I have a great inspiration. My stepson is 8 years old and has helped shape my character. He even shared some of his sick moves with me to prepare me for the dancing I do in the show. Thanks, Logan!

Q: The Fresno State opera production is a huge endeavor. Who are the faculty members collaborating on it? Is it fully staged?

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A: We have a huge team of people working together to make this production happen. Dr. Maria Briggs directed the show, Dr. Anthony Radford produced, Dr. Thomas Loewenheim conducts, Dr. Drew Quiring coached all of the singers for the past six months, and Dr. Cari Earnhart is the chorus master. On top of that, we have a whole crew running lights, sound, supertitles, the fog machine! It’s been a huge task. All of the opera students have also done their parts in creating the set, gathering the props, costuming, and promoting the show. This is a fully staged opera with no cuts and full orchestra and takes a village to run. Most students do not get to perform something like this on such a large scale, and this is a great opportunity the Fresno State Music Department has provided for its students. The process has shown all of the singers and orchestra everything it takes to put on a production of this size and gives us a glimpse into the professional world.

Q: You are studying for a master’s degree in vocal performance. When did you know you wanted to sing opera?

A: I have my Bachelor’s in Music Education and was fully planning on teaching choir in public schools. It wasn’t until my final year that I realized how much I loved classical voice. There is a power in it that I have not found in my other singing. Opera tells such beautiful stories with gorgeous music in a way that is so human. I am fascinated by the fact that we can watch something written by someone over a century ago and still be moved. Whatever it means to be human has always been in us and will continue to be centuries later and I love to play a part in that. In the future, I hope to be a part of the art being written now and share the points of view of people in this point in time.

Q: By itself, singing is vigorous exercise. In this opera you play a child who also races around the stage. Which do you think burns off more calories: 40 minutes on a Peleton or singing in “Hansel and Gretel”?

A: Oh, “Hansel and Gretel” for sure! At least in Act 1. Trying to have the energy of a child jumping and dancing around while singing was my biggest underestimation of the role. I was so excited to get to run around and play and quickly realized it’s a whole different beast when you have to sing the entire time. There are other times we get to sleep on stage or are tied up and those areas are much easier physically.

Q: Speaking of calories, you “eat” a lot of fake food in the production. If you could transform one dessert prop into reality and enjoy it for real, what would it be?

A: Oh, that’s tough! We have a bunch of amazing props from the Theatre Department and they all look amazing. I would choose the candy apples. They just look so real! Every time I hold it, I want to eat it!

Q: OK, time to broach the subject: Cannibalism. I know there are all sorts of psycho-sexual readings that you can attribute to old-fashioned macabre fairy tales, but, seriously, what’s your take on the fact that the Witch wants to fatten Hansel up and then eat him?

A: Cannibalism is definitely the weirdest part of the story. I think that it may have been chosen as a representation of overindulgence. In the original story, the parents abandon their children in the forest because there is not enough food to feed everyone. Horrifying! We have set our opera in the Great Depression. The parents are struggling, and the children are starving. Then, we meet the witch who is living a life of excess while everyone else is struggling. This shows a large divide in how the two parties are living.

Q: What is your favorite musical moment in the opera and why?

A: The finale! We get the entire cast on the stage and get a great happy ending. The music is triumphant and full and the singers and orchestra come together for a grand ending. There’s also no sound like an opera finale. It’s so great to have that much sound coming at you.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: This is a great show and a great starter opera for those who have not experienced an opera. It’s in English, full of beautiful, rich music, and has such a fun story!

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Sarah

    You misspelled one of the leading cast member’s name in the caption for your photo, it is Aunika Bull.


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