Hänsel und Gretel, Oper, Humperdinck, Handlung, Synopsis

The online opera guide to HÄNSEL UND GRETEL

Humperdinck’s fairytale opera is loved all over the world for its folk music. Hardly any other work of opera literature has been translated into so many languages. The work is one of the most performed operas in the world.




Overview and quick access






♪ Act I

♪ Act II

♪ Act III

Recording Recommendation


Suse, liebe Suse (Goosey goosey gander)

Brüderchen tanz mit mir (Little brother dance with me)

Ein Männlein steht im Walde (a dwarf stood in the forest)

Der kleine Sandmann bin ich (I am a little sandman)

Abendsegen (Abends, will ich schlafen gehen) (Evening prayer)

Der kleine Taumann heiss ich (when the dew drops on the daisy)

Hexen-Ritt (Witch-Ride)










Weimar, 1893


Adelheid Wette, based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The main roles

Peter, broom-maker (baritone) - Gertrud, Peter's wife (mezzo-soprano) - Hansel, Gertrud and Peter's boy (mezzo-soprano) - Gretel, Hansel's sister (soprano) - Witch, crunchy witch who bewitches children (mezzo-soprano) - Sandman & Dewman, magical creatures (soprano)

Recording recommendation

EMI, Elisabeth Grümmer, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Else Schürhoff conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra and the choirs of Lougthon high school for girls and Bancroft's School or the film DG, Brigitte Fassbaender, Edita Gruberova, Hermann Prey conducted by Georg Solti and the Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.









Humperdick’s close relation to Richard Wagner

Humperdinck was familiar with the world of German legends thanks to his work with Wagner’s music. Humperdinck met Wagner in Naples at the age of 26. Wagner is enthusiastic about the young man and invites him to come to Bayreuth and become his assistant. Humperdinck is on fire, lets his studies go and helps Wagner, among other things, with his work on Parsifal. 2 years later Wagner dies. Humperdinck has to look for a new job, but finds no permanent job, Wagnerians are not popular at music schools, so he makes his living with odd jobs. He also does not succeed as composer, he lacks inspiration. Until his sister asks him to set a few verses to music…



The origin of opera

The basic idea for this opera comes from Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid. She had written verses for her husband’s birthday based on the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, which she wanted to perform with their children. Humperdinck set them to music and the echo of the first small performances was very pleasing. This opera then grew in various revisions into a complete opera.

“Hansel and Gretel” was premiered in Weimar two days before Christmas in 1893, by none other than the 29-year-old Richard Strauss. He recognized from his first sighting of the score that it was a masterpiece. Since then, this opera has been considered a Christmas fairy tale, even though it is set in summer and the gingerbread is the only reminiscence of Christmas. The success was immense and the piece was performed on 50 stages in Germany already in the first year.

There is a true, dramatic story behind this fairy tale: “The material included by the Brothers Grimm against their better judgment in their collection of children’s and household fairy tales is not a folk tale, but a verbalization of the murder of Katharina Schraderin (1618-1647) the “Bakkerhexe”, who was acquitted in the Gelnau witch trial in 1647, but shortly thereafter murdered by Hans and Grete Metzler in their house in the Spessart and burned in one of their own ovens after she refused to reveal her gingerbread recipes.” (Csampai, Dutchman, the Opera Guide).


Casting issues

Hansel and Gretel are usually embodied by adults. Theoretically, these two roles could also be played by tall children, but in practice it is hard to find voices that can make themselves heard against a large orchestra and do justice to the musical difficulties.

It is also customary to cast a tenor in the role of the witch in order to emphasize the comic aspect of this role. However, Humperdinck categorically rejected this practice. Sometimes the role of the witch is played by the same performer as the mother, in order to show that the incidents in the parents’ house and in the witch’s house are not to be considered separately, but are to be experienced as a whole. In the masked symbolic language of the fairy tale, the witch stands for reality, which can sometimes be brutal and manipulative.



Wagner the overfather of the work

Humperdinck adopted many Wagnerian elements such as orchestration, harmony, and through-composition. Fortunately, he refrained from using excessive symbolism and decided on a brisk plot, which greatly benefits the work. Thus, it is the only “Wagnerian” opera that has managed to establish itself in the repertoire that did not originate from the master himself.

In the best Wagnerian manner, there is a scene of redemption in this opera. This time there are no Germanic gods or tragic figures but only gingerbread children. Humperdinck also called his opera “Kinderstubenweihfestspiel” (nursery consecration festival). You can get a taste of Humperdinck’s humor from the following anecdote: “At a dinner in the Villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth in 1891, Cosima Wagner asked the family friend Engelbert Humperdinck to say a few words to the guests. Pleasing as always, he immediately stood up, tapped his wine glass, looked around in a friendly manner, rubbed his hands together, cleared his throat a few times, and sat down again without having spoken a syllable. The archaeologist Reinhard Kekulé applauded enthusiastically and exclaimed: this is the best speech I have heard in my whole long life”. (from Schmitz/Ure, how Mozart can go into the sphere, from Siegfried Wagner’s memoirs).









The Overture with the Fairy Tale Mood

Synopsis: A small, miserable house on the edge of the woods.

With the overture, Humperdinck brings us to the fairytale world. The famous motif of the “evening prayer” sounds in a four-part horn chorale. Humperdinck introduces various musical themes in his prelude which beautifully fade out.



Synopsis: Hansel and Gretel sit opposite each other in the living room, both are at work. Hänsel makes brooms and Gretel knits a stocking near the stove. They are plagued by hunger, for weeks they have only eaten dry bread. Gretel reminds him of the saying that when the need is greatest, God the Lord puts out his hand…. But Hänschen thinks that you can’t eat one’s fill with it.

We hear the folk song Suse, liebe Suse (Goosey goosey gander).

This song is sung by Brigitte Fassbänder as Hansel. The German was a great cast for this role. She has a velvety mezzo-soprano and her perhaps biggest role, coincidence or not, was also a trouser role namely that of Octavian from the Rosenkavalier. Edita Gruberova sings a beautiful Gretel under the direction of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Suse, liebe Suse – Gruberova / Fassbänder


Hansel and Gretel dare a dance

Synopsis: Hansel’s not about work. First he stops at the milk pot and rests. Gretel asks him to keep working, but he can persuade her to dance with him.

The first, simple version Humperdinck set to music for his sister consisted of four 2-part pieces (Little brother dance with me). This dance piece is the only one that has been taken over almost unchanged from the first version. It has found its way into the German folk song.

See and hear the scene charmingly played by Gruberova and Fassbaender.

Brüderchen Tanz mit mir  –  Fassbaender / Gruberova


Mother and father come home

Synopsis: Mother Gertrud comes home in the middle of the dance. The two hurry quickly back to work. The mother is upset when she sees how little work the two could do. When she wants to punish the children with a stick, she accidentally knocks over the milk jug. She sends the children into the forest to look for berries. Gertrud is exhausted and sad that she can’t even offer her children anything to eat. Peter, her husband comes home.

The story of Hansel and Gretel is a story about growing up. At the beginning the children do everything together and walk hand in hand through the forest. At the end they become acting persons who are even separated.  The parents are drawn differently. The arrival of the mother in the house is accompanied with dark tones, while the father is drawn with warm-hearted buffo motives.

We hear the scene with Walter Berry, a veteran of the Vienna Opera who was married to Christa Ludwig for several years.

Rallala, ach wir armen Leute  –  Berry


Synopsis: Gertrud has to find out he’s been to the inn. She is desperate, but to her surprise Peter grabs eggs, sausages, butter and even coffee from his basket. Today he could sell many brooms and stockings in the village behind the Herrenwald. The father asks about the children, Gertrud tells that she sent them to pick berries in the Ilsenwald. Then his face suddenly darkens, for there lives the gingerbread witch who is in league with the devil. Peter tells her that she lures the children into the house with magic cake and turns the children into gingerbread in the oven. Gertrud and Peter set off to find the children.









Synopsis: Hansel and Gretel are in the woods.

Ein Männlein steht im Walde (a dwarf stood in the forest) is a well-known piece, which Humperdinck has taken over from the German folk song. The orchestration is modest and simple with beautiful flute trills and pizzicato strings.

Ein Männlein steht im Walde ganz still und stumm  –  Gruberova


Synopsis: The two have picked many berries, but have all eaten in time with the call of the cuckoo.

Kuckuck, Eier schluck  –  Ziesak


The Sandman – the transition into the fairytale world

Synopsis: It darkens and they can’t find their way back. Eerie noises and the echoes of their voices frighten them. In the fog they spot a little man. He comes closer, it is the Sandman. He is a friend of the children and speaks to them calming words and comes to put them to sleep.

The transition from the real to the imaginary world begins with the Sandman. With muted strings and harp sounds, Humperdinck abducts the children into the dream world with the voice of the Sandman (I am the little sandman).

Der kleine Sandmann bin ich  –  te Kanawa


The evening prayer – a wonderful highlight

Synopsis: The two pray together and find sleep on the forest floor.

This famous lullaby is the resting point of the opera.

According to Kesting, this scene in the interpretation by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Elisabeth Grümmer belongs to one of the great highlights of opera discography: “The recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan belongs to the greatest luxury in record history, ideally cast up to the supporting roles. The sound of “Abend will ich schlafen gehen” (Where each child lays down its head) falls as a beguiling sensory stimulus on the ear and transforms into magical poetry.”

Abendsegen (Abends, will ich schlafen gehen) – Schwarzkopf / Grümmer


You will hear and see this piece in a second version from the filmed version with Gruberova and Fassbaender.

Abendsegen (Abends, will ich schlafen gehen) – Gruberova / Fassbaender


Synopsis: When the children have fallen asleep, fourteen angels come and form a circle around them to protect them from the dangers of the forest.






Awakening with the Dewman

Synopsis: The dewman wakes the children

A beautiful orchestra introduction draws a gentle morning mood.

Listen to this dreamy piece in the enchanting interpretation by Ileana Cotrubas (when the dew drops on the daisy).

Der kleine Taumann heiß ich  –  Cotrubas


Synopsis: Slowly, the two children wake up.

Concerning text and subject of this work we speak about a children’s opera. However, due to the huge orchestra it is not easy to understand the text. But anyway, intimate passages like this exude a great magic. (I slept here! on a pine tree bed!)

Wo bin ich ? Wach ich ? … Tirelireli  –  Ziesak / Larmore


Hänsel and Gretel are usually played by adults. In theory, these two roles could also be played by elder children, but in practice it is difficult to find voices that can make themselves heard against a large orchestra and can do justice to the musical difficulties.

The gingerbread house appears – a languishing duet

Synopsis: Slowly the two children wake up. Both have dreamed of angels protecting them. The fog lifts and suddenly a house made of gingerbread and sweets appears. To the left of the house is an oven and to the right is a cage.

Another beautiful duet of Humperdinck, with languishing sounds of sweet temptations. Dreamily sung by Grümmer and Schwarzkopf.

Wie duftets von dorten … O herrlich Schlösschen  –  Grümmer / Schwarzkopf


Synopsis: Hanschen wants in, but Gretel holds him back.


Synopsis: Hansel can persuade her to try the gingerbread. When he tears down a piece, one hears from the house: ” Nibbling, nibbling, little mouse! Who’s nibbling on my little house? Hansel is enthusiastic about gingerbread, it tastes delicious. The witch comes out of the house. Hansel and Gretel are afraid of the strange old woman. She tries to lure the children into the house with sweets.

The german mezzosoprano Christa Ludwig was a great performer of the role of the witch. Her enticing singing is great. She combines the spookiness with beautiful singing and joy of playing. Listen to the scene from 1:18:55 to 1:22:10.

Kommt kleine Mäuslein, kommt in mein Häuslein (1:18:55 – 1:22:10) – Ludwig / Moffo


The witch-ride

Synopsis: When Hänsel and Gretel want to run away, she bewitches them and locks Hänsel in the cage. She wants to feed Hansel with nuts and raisins to make him fat and round. Gretel has to set the table and the witch fires the oven in which she wants to bake Hansel. Exited, she rides around the house on a broom.

The “witch ride” is a barely concealed persiflage of the “Valkyries ride”. Humperdinck composed the opera for a large romantic orchestra and exploits the possibilities of colouring musically. The orchestra is given a prominent role with the preludes and transition music.

Hexenritt – Suitner



The witch is outsmarted

Synopsis: Gretel can secretly steal the magic wand from the witch. She has memorized the magic word and can disenchant Hansel and free him from the cage unnoticed. The witch tells Gretel to peek inside the oven to see if the gingerbread is done. Gretel deliberately acts stupid and asks the witch to show it to her. As the witch kneels in front of the stove, the two children push the witch into the burning stove.

Listen to a lively duet in ¾ time, where the children celebrate that they could throw the witch into the oven.

Juchhei, nun ist die Hexe tot  –  Grümmer / Schwarzkopf


Synopsis: Hansel and Gretel jump out of the house, and the crispy little house explodes with a loud bang. From the gingerbread figures in the garden, the gingerbread casings fall off, and children appear who the witch had baked into gingerbread figures. Gretel wakes up all the children with her hand. Hänsel disenchants everyone with a juniper bush. The two hear their father’s voice and the children pull a large gingerbread from the ruins of the oven which are the leftovers of the witch.

At the end, the opera is once again contemplative with the chorale “Wenn die Not auf nächsten steigen, Gott der Herr die Hand uns reicht.” (When the need is greatest, God the Lord puts out His hand).

Finale – Jurowski



Recording Recommendation


EMI with Elisabeth Grümmer, Elisabeht Schwarzkopf,  under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra and the choirs of Lougthon high school for girls and Bancroft’s School.




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to HÄNSEL UND GRETEL by Engelbrecht Humperdinck.






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