In rehearsals this week, we’ve been thinking about the moments when Edith sings a German opera aria that she is learning in school. Specifically, Edith sings “Ein Mannlein steht im Walde” from German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera HANSEL AND GRETEL. The opera is based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, and Humperdinck wrote the music at the urging of his sister Adelheid, who had written songs based on the fairy tale for her children. Humperdinck completed HANSEL AND GRETEL in 1893, and it premiered on Christmas Eve at the German National Theater. Though usually performed by adults, the opera has been popular among children and remains a traditional Christmas-time entertainment.
The story of HANSEL AND GRETEL itself has several thematic resonances to EDITH, and the aria “Ein Mannlein steht im Walde” plays similar roles in both stories. In the opera, Gretel sings the aria at the top of Act II — she and her brother Hansel (also played by a woman in the opera) have been sent to the forest by their angry mother to collect strawberries for dinner after they have spilled a jug of milk. Gretel weaves a crown of flowers and sings the aria about “a little man in the forest” as she and Hansel stray into the darkening forest. The little man never appears, but serves as a comforting imaginary presence.
Edith uses the song in a similar fashion. She sings it when she is awake in the dark farmhouse, protecting Kenny, and tells him that she discovered she could “fly” from the rafters of the barn after coming there to vent her frustration through singing when Dad became angry that she was practising the song in the house. Kenny reminds her of their own imaginary presence when Edith refuses to dress nicely for her recital of the aria — their mother will be watching, he says, even though she isn’t physically there, so Edith has to look nice. Later, Edith uses the aria to prove how responsible she is to Kenny: ” I learned all that German for my choir solo. I can shoot an aluminum can from fifty feet away.”
Check back soon for more connections between EDITH and HANSEL AND GRETEL.
Watch Gretel sing the aria in SUNYPurchase Opera’s production. Like Edith, Gretel finds a high vantage point before she starts singing. (And with good reason — notice the witch lurking behind her.)