From the Archives: Humperdinck at the Met
By Peter Clark
German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (pictured below seated, with conductor Alfred Hertz and Met General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza) is known today almost exclusively for his fairy-tale opera Hänsel und Gretel, which had its Met premiere in 1905, some twelve years after its world premiere in Germany. The popularity of Hänsel und Gretel and its quickly established status as a Christmastime children’s entertainment had already made Humperdinck a celebrity in the world of opera, even before the composer came to New York to supervise the Met premiere. He also spent time stateside touring several American cities. On December 13, 1905, newspapers reported that Prof. and Mrs. Humperdinck had been received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt and the First Lady, who announced their intentions to come to New York to attend Hänsel und Gretel. Although the President didn’t make it in the end, Mrs. Roosevelt came for a special benefit performance at the Met on March 15 that raised $5,000 for the Legal Aid Society.
Sung in German at the Met premiere on November 25, 1905, Hänsel und Gretel was immediately well received. “Hänsel und Gretel indeed presents itself to the knowing as an achievement of the highest talent and skill in much that pertains to modern musicianship,” wrote Richard Aldrich in The New York Times, who labeled it “this gay little children’s tale elaborated musically with all the resources of the Wagnerian method and orchestra.” Humperdinck’s Wagnerian style was widely noted, as were his connections to the Master of Bayreuth, with whom he worked on preparations for the Bayreuth Parsifal performance in 1880 and 1881.
In 1910, Humperdinck became the second composer in history to have a world premiere of one of his operas given at the Metropolitan. The first, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, had its world premiere at the Met on December 10 of that year, with Humperdinck’s Königskinder (The King’s Children) following on December 28. The German composer again crossed the Atlantic to oversee the highly publicized premiere of his new opera. In fact, Königskinder had first appeared in Germany in 1898 as a melodrama—a play with incidental music and some sung airs, but with much of the dialogue given in a mixture of spoken and sung text called sprechstimme, which Humperdinck “invented” (though it would later be adopted and made famous by Arnold Schoenberg). For the Met, Humperdinck had reworked Königskinder as a fully sung opera, and it was given a starry production conducted by Alfred Hertz, with the glamorous Geraldine Farrar as the Goose Girl (pictured below) and the young lead tenor from the Berlin Opera Hermann Jadlowker as the King’s Son. As her character name indicates, Farrar herded a flock of geese around the stage and, never one to miss an opportunity for publicity, made the most of her avian companions, including taking bows with one tucked under her arm. “With what exquisite charm an artist like Miss Farrar might invest a character like that of the Goose Girl her admirers could easily fancy before they entered the theatre, but it is doubtful if anyone’s imagination quite reached the figure which she bodied forth. It was a vision of tender loveliness which she presented, and as perfect in conception as in execution,” wrote Henry Krehbiel in The New-York Tribune.
The Goose Girl would become one of Farrar’s biggest triumphs, and her popularity contributed largely to Königskinder remaining in the repertory for four Met seasons in a row. While it has not been revived since 1914 at the Met, Königskinder has been performed in some leading opera venues in more recent times, with the Wexford Festival, English National Opera, Bavarian State Opera, and Zurich Opera (with Jonas Kaufmann as the King’s Son) staging performances. Recordings of live performances reveal a work with much beautiful music that has probably been unjustly neglected.
Hänsel und Gretel, meanwhile, has become a staple of the Met repertory over the years, although there have only been four productions. The original production (a scene from that staging is pictured at the top of this page) played for 12 seasons through 1917, before being banned along with all German opera during World War I. A new production by art deco designer Joseph Urban, with his daughter Gretel as costume designer and Wilhelm von Wymetal as director, took the stage in 1927 and was given in 14 seasons. It was this production that provided the Met’s first radio broadcast of a complete opera on Christmas Day, 1931 (a performance starring Edita Fleischer and Queena Mario as the title youngsters, pictured below).
After some 40 years of the Urban production, director Nathaniel Merrill and designer Robert O’Hearn created a very traditional new production in 1967 (a scene from this staging is pictured below) that delighted children for decades. “The best thing about the revival of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan is that it is just that: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. No sophistications, no updating, no attempt to make it anything other than what it is: a delightfully diverting retelling of the old fairy tale,” wrote Irving Kolodin in Saturday Review. By this time, the opera was regularly given in English at the Met, as it had been since the 1946–47 season. Hansel and Gretel has also been scheduled regularly for Christmas performances (18 Christmas Days and 8 Christmas Eves to date).
For the new production in 2007 (pictured below starring Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer), it was time for a new approach, which director Richard Jones and designer John Macfarlane ably provided. “An extremely sophisticated combination of elegant fantasy—as in Act II’s deep-green forest-patterned room, in which Magritte-ish chefs in outsized toques take the place of the libretto’s fourteen angels—and knockabout comedy of the ‘food fight’ variety, the new Met staging embraces Hänsel und Gretel as an opera suitable for adults,” said F. Paul Driscoll in Opera News. Nevertheless, he observed “the youngsters in the premiere audience seemed to have little or no trouble following the onstage action; they certainly responded with vigor when flour and cocoa were tossed around in the witch’s kitchen, and when that redoubtable lady landed inside the oven.”
Humperdinck died in 1921. A sad footnote to his relations with the Met is retained in the company’s archives. It is a desperate letter written by the composer’s surviving family just after World War II ended to then General Manager Edward Johnson. The deprivation in postwar Germany was so severe and the family was in such dire straits that they were appealing to their old acquaintances at the Met for help. Johnson referred the matter to the Met’s Board member and great benefactress, who also founded the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Mrs. Eleanor Belmont. She and her friends organized a relief package to send to the Humperdinck family, but no record remains of any further communication.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.