Hansel and Gretel is a holiday tradition for families in Europe, not unlike The Nutcracker in the United States. But the Engelbert Humperdinck opera has never really caught on here, so it will be interesting to see how Sarasota Opera fares with its production, which is being billed as family friendly. The company is even offering free babysitting for one performance, making it easier for families and older children to take in the German "fairy tale'' opera.
Actually, Hansel and Gretel is somewhat underrated as an opera — and kind of a tough sell to adults — because of its supposed appeal to children, as I was reminded by the opening night performance. Humperdinck's sophisticated orchestration, clearly in debt to his mentor Wagner, is absolutely gorgeous, giving the opera much of its emotional and dramatic heft. The orchestra turned in a fine performance under Anthony Barrese. An associate conductor in Sarasota in 2002-03, Barrese has become a first-rate conductor.
There's a charming camaraderie between Sarasota's Hansel and Gretel, Heather Johnson and Angela Mortellaro, respectively, as they get shooed away from the house by their mother, Gertrud (Valerie Kopinski), and head into the woods, where magic and trouble await. That comes in the person of the Witch, played with great comic flair by Stella Zambalis, who has a lot of fun with the cackling coloratura of her hocus-pocus aria.
Sarasota has cast five of the seven principal roles with studio artists (Johnson and Zambalis are the exceptions). While it's certainly not inappropriate — and no doubt economical — to have young singers in Hansel and Gretel, some of the performances lacked nuance, such as the children's father, Peter (Evan Brummel), and the top-hatted Sandman (Alissa Anderson).
The set by David P. Gordon, built for a 2001 production, is one of Sarasota's most successful, frequently rented to other companies, and it has a lot of child appeal in the Witch's cottage made of gingerbread and marzipan. This is scenery that the performers can literally chew, or so it appears. Also enchanting is the final scene of Act 1, when Hansel and Gretel fall asleep under a tree, guarded by 14 angels in white tulle, prettily danced by young ballerinas.
Sarasota Opera is recommending that children 8 and up can probably handle Hansel and Gretel, which is sung in English, with the text shown above the stage. It runs about two hours, 15 minutes, including an intermission. The performance with free baby- sitting is Saturday's matinee. Tickets are $19-$120.
With the recession dragging on, this is the season for target marketing. On Friday, it's "LGBT Night at the Opera'' with discounted tickets at $75 and a wine and cheese reception for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender operagoers before the double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Information: (941) 366-8450, ext. 1; sarasotaopera.org (use LGBTOpera code).
Tenor uses new means to fund classical CD
Tenor Bryce Westervelt wants to make a CD of Schubert's Die schone Mullerin, but he's not waiting around to be discovered by a record company. "These days, record companies are not giving out contracts, except for the same 10 or 12 singers who already have contracts,'' says Westervelt, 37, who performs with Opera Tampa, St. Petersburg Opera, the Bach Festival of Central Florida and other groups. "So as an independent artist, it's hard to come up with the funding to make a project happen.''
Westervelt has landed on an interesting way to raise money for his recording by having it listed on the Web site Kickstarter.com, which bills itself as "a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers.''
The company Westervelt is keeping on the Web site is fascinating, with hundreds of projects ranging from independent films to a freelance journalist-cartoonist seeking support to cover the Afghanistan war to a cellist recording Bach to someone sailing around the world. It seems to be an efficient way for creative entrepreneurs to find donors, with Kickstarter collecting a 5 percent fee if a project is successfully funded.
To make a CD of the Schubert song cycle, with pianist Tim McReynolds, Westervelt is seeking $6,500. On Tuesday he had $2,213 pledged, or 34 percent of his goal. If he doesn't reach his goal by April 1, all pledges are off.
"That deadline is the double-edged sword of the whole thing,'' Westervelt says. "There is a huge amount of angst. If I don't make the goal I lose everything.''
Young artists contest coming on Saturday
The Suncoast Opera Guild's annual competition for college students and young professional singers in Florida is next weekend in St. Petersburg. The competition should attract some excellent singers with its $4,000 first prize. Past winners include Eglise Gutierrez, a soprano from Miami who has gone on to opera stardom. The competition is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the St. Petersburg College Music Center, 6605 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Free.
In February, the guild held its competition for high school students, and the $500 first-prize winner was Kyle Enriquez from Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.