Furthering the Savannah Voice Festival’s mission of educating and entertaining, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” the second in four operas at this year’s festival, is being staged by an array of students.
The SVF is collaborating with Esther F. Garrison School for the Arts and the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System for this production, which will feature a cast comprised of students from the Milnes Voice Studio. Directing will be longtime VOICExperience Foundation member Chad Sonka, who is also the educational and outreach coordinator for the Savannah Opera Company.
Staged at the new Yamacraw Center for the Performing Arts venue at Garrison, the sets for the show were constructed by students from the middle school. Students will also be involved in the technical side of the production and the award-winning Garrison chorus will make an appearance.
“We’re doing a total arts immerse with the students at Garrison,” Sonka said. “They are working on building our set for ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ As you can imagine, the mind of a middle-schooler building a Gingerbread House — it’s pretty awesome.”
For Sonka, who his in his sixth year with the VOICExperience program, the chance to branch out and direct is another step in his career that’s been propelled by his relationship with the organization and founders Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves.
“I just wanted to get involved in this program, because I so believe in what it does,” Sonka said. “It creates versatile artists. It helps cultivate versatile artists that know how to work in all aspects of this music business. Here I am. I started out as a singer and now I am directing one of the shows, as well as singing in a number of them.”
The "Hansel and Gretel" cast (the show is double casted for the two performances) is in a specific time in their careers where they are developing as singers and growing into their own voices. A production of this kind allows them room for growth.
“It’s pretty fantastic,” Sonka said of directing. “I am viewing it as another form of outreach. I am giving back what was so lovingly given to me when I was in my first couple of productions here. It’s been an honor to work with this level of students when they’re at their incubation stage. Us learning the fine art of stage craft. It’s been healthy for me to discover who I am as a young director through who they are as young singers. It’s kind of a discovery project.”
German composer Humperdinck is mostly known for this opera, to which his sister, Adelheid Wette, contributed the libretto. Loosely based on the Grimm brothers' fairy tale of the same name, “Hansel and Gretel” is a fairy-tale opera with folk-inspired music. The first performance was held in Hoftheater in Weimar on Dec. 23, 1893, with famed composer Richard Strauss conducting.
Humperdinck studied under an array of great composers, including Ferdinand Hiller and Josef Rheinberger. He was also close friends with composer Richard Wagner, whose operas became cornerstones in the canon of Western tonal music, and undoubtedly influenced Humperdinck’s work.
The SVF’s production of “Hansel and Gretel” will be presented with a chamber orchestra of violin, cello, flute and piano, conducted by Marcello Cormio.
“We’re talking about sophisticated music that has motives in it that hearken to a certain character or mood,” Sonka said. “Underneath this simple story is this very sophisticated score that is also telling a story. It’s sort of a character in itself. It’s perfect as a director, because you get all your cues from the music itself. All you have to do is listen. I am in love with this score.
“Sometimes with grand opera, it’s acceptable that someone stands there and sings beautifully for five minutes,” Sonka continued. “’Hansel and Gretel’ is not that at all. The gear is kicked up. There’s always motion going on on stage. There’s funny little comedic bits that if they aren’t hit at the right part, the scene dies and wanes. It’s intricate, while having a broad appeal.
"They’re such humans in this show. Everybody knows how a brother and sister act toward each other. Everybody knows what it’s like to feel hungry. Then it taps into our fantastical side, too. I think it has mass appeal.”