Many years ago, teaching pre-k students about stories, and story structure, it occurred to me that since my students sang their made-up songs in dramatic play, I should share the grown-up version of stories that are sung. That is how teaching opera to young children was born in our classroom. The opera by Englebert Humerdinck, Hansel and Gretel, was one I’d sung in the past. It is usually performed during the holidays, ostensibly for children (though I defy any adult to fall asleep while watching it). The story itself is problematic for early childhood classrooms. A mother/step-mother who wants her children to die so that the couple has enough to eat? A witch who turns children into cookies? The original tale is a typical Brothers Grimm tale, based on many word-of-mouth versions going back to a famine in fourteenth century Germany. To our modern sensibilities, it is a terrifying story. The wonderful James Marshall’s comic version is one children enjoy, but at the end, the step-mother is still dead. Reading this version to children one year, a boy pronounced this turn of events, “Good!” (Good riddance to a bad mommy?). Older school-age children will enjoy comparing all of the versions, but for preschool, Beni Montresor’s version is best. And it is identical to the opera libretto.
Here is a very brief synopsis: A poor mother sends her children out to pick wild strawberries because of their need for food. The children get lost and sleep in the forest, protected by the friendly animals (children in costume), and angels. Here is the scene in the opera which will illicit conversation about feelings of sadness, loss, and how we sometimes need a good sleep to overcome these feelings. Hansel and Gretel find the witch’s delicious house, and meet the old, seemingly friendly woman who owns it. The story proceeds from there as it usually does.
The witch’s character is usually played for comedy, sometimes in even in drag, softening the horror of a witch who eats gingerbread children. After Gretel pushes the witch into her own oven, the other children that were liberated from witch enchanted cookie forms (played by the Met Children’s Chorus in my recommended DVD), and Hansel and Gretel, celebrate, singing and dancing with gusto. The mother and father sing themselves in from the wings, and they joyously reunite with Hansel and Gretel. There couldn’t be a more satisfying ending, provided you don’t mind the children’s chorus ripping the witch/cookie apart and pretending to eat her. Our children loved this part! The storybook and opera prepare children for the themes of overcoming hardship with ingenuity, and the ultimate triumph of love over adversity.
I have always shown the DVD (VHS years ago) in twenty minute installments, making sure to pause and discuss what is happening, and listening to comments and questions. Children have amazing observations to express and discuss.
Many activities can come from this! My students have written letters to the characters to express their feelings about them, made stick puppets to act out the story, and created a book with pictures of each scene of the opera. It is so rewarding to see, from their drawings, what impressed or excited each of them. They have even acted out the story, using what I call “stage-magic”. One year, our children recognized that fairy tales had magic in them. While watching the DVD of the opera, a child-friendly version from 1982 (not all productions are child-friendly), we pinpointed which magic we wanted to duplicate. Here we confront that transition phase of development where children are learning that there’s a difference between real and imaginary, but aren’t always totally convinced. Learning about stage magic allows them to play with the line between the two.
Here is some of the stage magic we did: Turning the witch into a gingerbread cookie; turning the witch’s tongue green, and making fire (yes, it involves red and orange tissue paper with a light in it). To turn the witch into a cookie is stage magic, otherwise known as stage craft. Use some sort of blind (like the wings of a stage--corrogated cardboard works) to hide a great cardboard gingerbread cookie fabricated by the children. Each child takes a turn pretending to be Gretel to “stage push”. She gives a little nudge, and the person being “pushed” acts like she’s been pushed hard into an oven. That person, alias witch, dives behind the blind. After a blinding flash and noise, using room lights, and children shouting “BOOM!”, Gretel pulls the cookie out! The witch’s tongue (in my recommended DVD, green) can be duplicated with green candy. Suck on this, my child, and you, too will be a witch! We have never accomplished flying. But there is always discussion about how it is actually done (one girl saw the wires!). Make sure to give children every opportunity to create costumes, props, and sets, minimalist or not (our last oven was a chair).
I haven’t even mentioned the music. This music, by a student of Wagner, is transcendent. Playing great music excites the imaginations of young children. If you wish for more guidance, here is an educational website giving you the opportunity to try out my ideas in a game form. But don’t use it as a substitute for your own new knowledge and enthusiasm! Remember, your excitement, plus good planning, equal a totally new and engaging experience for children. To watch another group of young children learn about another “children’s” opera, click here. I hope you are intrigued by the integrated curriculum opera provides. It actually is more than teaching standards, though that happens as well. Opera is another opportunity to demonstrate the power of singing. Play them opera, and sing along!