Opera Scotland

Hansel and Gretel in Scotland

Posted 8 Nov 2023

Hansel and Gretel was first performed in Scotland at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow on 24 April 1895, a mere four months after its London premiere.  This was, in turn, only twelve months since its launching in Weimar. The Carl Rosa company clearly picked it up very quickly, also taking it to Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

Marie Linck and Minnie Hunt took the title roles, with Alice Barth and Homer Lind as the parents and Luise Meisslinger as the Witch.  Leo Feld conducted.  Further performances were given that Autumn, with Richard Eckhold conducting a cast as before except for the arrival of Frances Graham (Hansel) and Julia Lennox (Witch).

The opera did not appear again until 1923, when the British National Opera Company brought it in Spring to the King's (Edinburgh) and Coliseum (Glasgow).  Julius Harrison conducted a cast including Doris Lemon (Hansel), Isabel Rhys Parker (Gretel), May Blyth (Gertrude) and Frederic Collier (Peter).  An innovation frequently observed since was for the Witch to be taken by a tenor letting his hair down, in this case Sydney Russell.  On the November visit, the Australian soprano Eda Bennie came in as Gertrude, with May Blyth switching to the Witch.

When the BNOC staging returned in 1926 the conductor was a great Australian authority on Wagner,  Aylmer Buesst.  The Witch was now taken by Constance Willis, one of the leading British mezzos of the inter-war years.

The Carl Rosa visit of 1930 was notable particularly for the appearance as Gretel of the young soprano Audrey Mildmay.  While she was an excellent singing actress in a number of roles, including Micaëla Musetta, her principal claim to fame follows her marriage to the financier John Christie.  He built for her an opera house at their estate in Sussex, and so the Glyndebourne Festival was born.  She sang Susanna in the opening producton of Le nozze di Figaro, which was recorded in 1934.  Her grandson Gus Christie is still in charge in Sussex.

After the demise of the Carl Rosa company most of the touring in Scotland was taken over by Sadler's Wells Opera (now ENO).  They brought a production of Hansel and Gretel north in 1960, performing in Glasgow and Dundee.  John Barker conducted Powell Lloyd's staging with Suzanne Steele and Iris Kells in the leads. Two long-term company regulars appeared - John Hargreaves as Peter and Sheila Rex as the Witch.  Gertrude was sung by  young dramatic soprano Rita Hunter, who over the next decade would gradually develop so that through the 1970s she would be one of the leading Wagnerian sopranos.  She sang Gertrude again in 1964 and 1966 when a new staging by Glen Byam Shaw appeared.  New arrivals included Margaret Neville as Gretel.  Of particular interest in 1964 is the appearance of Ann Howard as the Witch.  She worked here regularly in Scottish Opera's early years and was a famous Carmen with Sadler's Wells.  The conductor in 1966 was a highly-regarded Scot, Alexander Faris.

An interesting phenomenon occurred in 1972 at the Ledlanet Nights festival near Milnathort.  A hugely successful yet intimate staging packed out the theatre for six performances from Boxing Day to Hogmanay.  Gordon Mabbott conducted while playing a gargantuan piano reduction of the score.  The cast included a regular with Scottish Opera, Sheila McGrow, as Gretel, and Paschal Allen, later a Royal Opera regular, as Peter. The tenor James Colclough directed the show, designed the sets and costumes, and then had great fun frightening the kids as the Witch.


Scottish Opera launched its first production in 1978 when the company was able to give a Christmas season at the recently renovated Theatre Royal.  The conductor was Sir Alexander Gibson and the director Peter Ebert, giving an unusually thoughtful account of the work too often played for laughs.  Designers Sue Blane and Maria Bjørnson, of the Citizens Theatre, were now well-established as Scottish Opera regulars, a highly imaginative team.

The two casts were led by Cynthia Buchan and Della Jones as Hansel.  Marie Slorach and Laureen Livingstone sang Gretel, with Judith Pierce and Malcolm Donnelly as the parents.  The role of the Witch was shared between three tenors, company regulars in Gregory Dempsey, Francis Egerton and John Robertson.  All thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

This production was revived in 1983, conducted by Stephen Barlow.  Rosanne Creffield was Hansel, Deborah Rees Gretel, Enid Hartle Gertrude, David Marsh Peter and Regina Sarfaty crossed the Atlantic to make her first Scottish appearance as the Witch.

Scottish Opera's second production was directed by young Canadian Mark Tinkler, using atmospheric (creepy) designs by Richard Aylwin.   Guido Ajmone-Marsan conducted a cast that included Claire Bradshaw and Catriona Smith as Hansel and Gretel, with Anne Mason and Russell Smythe as the parents.  Elizabeth Vaughan was a highly dramatic Witch, while Lisa Milne made an instant impression as the Dew Fairy.  When this staging was revived in 1998, Richard Armstrong conducted a cast that included three particularly notable mezzos - Leah-Marian Jones as Hansel, Phyllis Cannan as Gertrude and Anne-Marie Owens as the Witch.

The company's last full-scale production came in 2012, when Bill Bankes-Jones directed Kai Rüütel (Hansel), Ailish Tynan (Gretel), Shuna Scott Sendall (Gertrude) and Paul Carey-Jones (Peter).  The Witch was given an unusually glamorous gloss by Leah-Marian Jones - the Hansel from 1998.  This staging was conducted by Emmanuel Joel-Hornak.

During the period of lockdown restrictions caused by Covid, Scottish Opera produced a number of imaginative events streamed from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.  One of these, in February 2021, included a cast with Kitty Whately (Hansel), Rhian Lois (Gretel) and Philip Rhodes (Peter).  Nadine Benjamin tackled both Gertrude and the Witch.  The conductor was David Parry, with the clever semi-staged production directed and designed by Daisy Evans.


The Edinburgh International Festival has never provided a fully-staged production.  However in 2018 Sir Andrew Davis took a break from his usual exertions with the RSNO, habitually in the form of Wagner or Elgar.  This semi-staged version had a delightful cast of unfamiliar stars. Elizabeth DeShong sang Hansel, and Laura Wilde Gretel.  Mum and Dad were Okka von der Damerau and Tomasz Konieczny.  Even in the concert hall the Swedish tenor Thomas Blondelle cheerfully brought the house down as the Witch.


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