Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival Presents HANSEL AND GRETEL Review – Feast for the Eyes and Ears

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival HANSEL AND GRETEL
Nicole Thomas as Hansel and Joowoon Chae as Gretel with Members of Manual Cinema and the Opera Saratoga Orchestra

HANSEL AND GRETEL is a feast for the eyes and ears.  Spa Little Theater has a small stage and no orchestra pit.  While ideally suited for chamber opera, HANSEL AND GRETEL requires a large orchestra so half the stage is massed with musicians.  Conductor Geoffrey McDonald manages skillfully to lead his stage left instrumentalists while simultaneously leading the singers who were far stage right.   In between, the Manual Cinema puppeteers wrought their shadow puppet magic, miming the libretto. Over the stage, the large performance screen hung and above that the super-titles.

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival HANSEL AND GRETEL
Whitney Robinson as The Gingerbread Witch with members of Manual Cinema
Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival HANSEL AND GRETEL
Nicole Thomas as Hansel and Joowoon Chae as Gretel with Members of Manual Cinema and the Opera Saratoga Orchestra
Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival HANSEL AND GRETEL
Whitney Robinson as The Gingerbread Witch, Joowon Chae as Gretel and Nicole Thomas as Hansel

Manual Cinema Transports Shadow Puppetry into Reality Theater

Shadow puppetry often conjures images of children presenting stories with crudely devised two dimensional puppets illuminated from the rear, casting a shadow image on a screen.  In this production, Manual Cinema reinvents shadow puppetry.  They use multiple shadow images—stick figures, image cutouts, panoramas that they pull across the light—projected over and in front of multiple old overhead projectors.  Puppeteers become images, performing in silhouette.  Ensemble members move seamlessly with amazing speed among the roles:  device handler, human puppet, image projector.  All the behind-the-scenes technical elements are directly in front of the audience.  We see how they make the magic.

HANSEL AND GRETEL opens with the two children—opera singers and human puppets.  The singers perform concert style, standing still, but with welcome facial and hand animation.  The puppets, seen both on the large screen in black shadow and on the stage creating the shadows, cavort as they share stories about how much fuller their bellies could be.  We see immediately that Hansel is the adventurer and Gretel the voice of reason.  And as soon as they are joined by Mother and Father, we learn that times are getting better.  With many a caution, they send the children “into the woods” to gather mushrooms for a celebratory dinner.  We know…the rest of the story.

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival Features Young Artists

In this writer’s view the singing was excellent.  All the featured singers are members of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program.  Joowon Chae as Gretel and Nicole Thomas as Hansel seemed as young as the children they voiced with spontaneity, charm and then fear.  Annie Chester as Mother and Justin Austin as Father were somber, cautious and finally terror-stricken by the disappearance of their children into the dreaded woods. Rachel Mikol as Sandman and Sydney Anderson as Dew Fairy embraced their smaller roles with tender nuance.  Whitney Robinson as the Gingerbread Witch struck fear and awe into everyone with her brash threats and cackles in Act Two.  The shadow puppet performers and the singers perfectly synched the action with the voices.  The audience was rewarded no matter where they looked.

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival HANSEL AND GRETEL
Rachel Mikol as the Sandman with Nicole Thomas as Hansel and Joowon Chae as Gretel and Members of Manual Cinema

The opera HANSEL AND GRETEL  would seem to be an excellent introductory production for children.  But what strikes this writer as very unfortunate is that all the action that would captivate children, including the witch, is concentrated in Act 2.  By then, many children had fallen asleep or become disruptive and taken home.  That said, most children did remain to be rewarded by the second act.

The manic mix of Manual Cinema’s shadow performance, and the excellence of the cast, and the on-stage orchestra, kept us riveted.

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival HANSEL AND GRETEL
Annie Chester as Mother and Justin Austin as Father with members of Manual Cinema

Spa Little Theater is the Home of Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival

When you hear Saratoga Springs NY, many might think of it as the summer playground of New York’s wealthy.  Summer mansions built by Park Avenue millionaires a hundred and more years ago line the streets.  The original race track still runs daily during the season.  The mineral spa baths available to them are still available to us.

It wasn’t until 1962 that the approximately 2,300 acres surrounding the springs were designated a New York State Park--inside the City of Albany.  The grounds include the spas, a hotel, major outdoor concert venues, a dance pavilion that is the summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Little Spa Theater, home of Opera Saratoga.  Seating 500, it is suited for intimate operas and acoustically fine, in this reviewer’s opinion.  The theater does lack an orchestra pit, so musicians are seated on the stage.


The combination of Manual Cinema with the opera of HANSEL AND GRETEL was, in this writer’s view, inspired.  This is a child’s fairy tale told with a children’s theater medium of shadow puppets.  The opera score transports a child’s tale into grand opera.  Manual Cinema’s sophisticated interpretation of the opera through shadow puppet art cements the appeal for all ages.


Music: Engelbert Humperdinck

Libretto by Adelheid Wette

Conductor: Geoffrey McDonald

Production: Manual Cinema

Hansel: Nicole Thomas

Gretel: Joowon Chae

The Gingerbread Witch: Whitney Robinson / Cierra Byrd

Mother (Gertrude): Annie Chester / Flora Wall

Father (Peter): Justin Austin

The Sandman: Rachel Mikol

The Dew Fairy: Sydney Anderson

Members of the Children's Chorus of the Glens Falls Symphony


Wednesday, July 10 @ 7:30pm; Sunday, July 14 @ 2:00pm


Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs NY



Visit the Opera Sarasota website for additional information.

Photo credit Gary David Gold

Watch this video previewing Picture This Post's OPERAS WE LOVE - roundup.

Ann Boland
Portrait by Paul Sierra

Reviewer Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater. Involved in the audience since the early 80’s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of our theater scene, our exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation.  Ann handles public relations for authors and works on programs to help seniors with neurological movement disorders.  Please visit her website for more information.  


Click here to read more Picture this Post reviews by Ann Boland.

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