Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hansel & Gretel: Opera about Food!

Last night I took in a very enjoyable English-language performance of the opera Hansel and Gretel (originally Hansel und Gretel). The young singers were very promising, and the production (sets designed by Maurice Sendak, most famous for the classic Where the Wild Things Are) was totally charming. While I was watching and listening, though, it did occur to me that this is the ultimate Cautionary Opera for Problem Eaters!

Hansel & Gretel is unusual to start with: unlike most operas, it's not about unrequited tragic love or requited "Happily Ever After" love. Instead, it's about eating - which should put it high on every dieter's list. The plot is a version of the folk tale most people heard when they were children, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm and their gentler-minded successors: Hansel and Gretel are a brother and sister whose father's broommaking business isn't putting three meals a day on the table, and one day their mother sends them into the forest to pick berries for dinner because they accidentally break the jug of milk which was the only food in the house. After they can't resist eating the entire basketful of berries they pick, they're too frightened to face their mother at home and they get lost in the forest. Hansel and Gretel come upon a house made entirely of gingerbread and candy, which they immediately start devouring until they're captured by the Witch who lives there. She plans to fatten them up and bake them into gingerbread cookies, but they outsmart her and push her headfirst into her own oven.

Let's face it, this opera is not food-friendly! That gingerbread house might look charming in pictures, but it's the Witch's bait for trapping kids with a sweet tooth. And when Hansel and Gretel start breaking off pieces of the shutters and wolfing them down, they nearly end up getting baked alive in an enormous oven. And then if you add in how the milk pitcher gets broken because they take it out of the cupboard to skim off the cream, plus how they plan to eat just a berry or two but then lose control and eat the whole basket - well, Hansel and Gretel is one big long warning about what happens if you can't say no to foods you're not supposed to eat! Giving in to temptation might seem harmless when it's only a handful of strawberries or a piece of gingerbread, but the next thing you know, you're headed straight for the inside of a roaring oven. And why does the Witch get baked herself? Because she was so greedy for sweets that she made gingerbread out of children! Think about that next time you feel the bakery or the candy aisle calling ...

Speaking of opera, by the way, if you like smart weight loss blogs and you're not yet reading mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler's The Next Hundred Pounds, you should check it out.

On a side note, Hansel and Gretel inspired one of my favorite lines from Sex and the City (what? you expect college professors to only quote Shakespeare?!), in the episode when the four heroines go to a married friend's baby shower in the suburbs. They find themselves surrounded by pregnant women and hyperactive small children, and after Miranda gets hit in the head by a flying nerf ball, she says:
I just realized... maybe it's maturity or the wisdom that comes with age, but the Witch in Hansel and Gretel -- she's very misunderstood. I mean, the woman builds her dream house and these brats come along and start eating it.

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