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Bringing A Cannibalistic Witch To Life For 'Hansel And Gretel'

J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert as Hansel is trapped by tenor Joel Sorensen as the Witch in San Diego Opera's production of "Hansel & Gretel." February, 2020.

San Diego Opera uses imaginative puppets in new production

Companion viewing

"The Brothers Grimm" (2005)

"Hansel and Gretel" (2007 short by Robert Eggers)

"Gretel and Hansel" (2020)

It’s not every day that an opera singer gets to bring a cannibalistic witch to life.


"I lure children into the forest and I cook them into gingerbread cakes and then I eat them. It's delightful," said tenor Joel Sorensen.

Bringing A Cannibalistic Witch To Life For ‘Hansel And Gretel’
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

But what’s not so delightful is having to wear a big puppetry rig to create a larger-than-life witch onstage.

"I am a puppet," Sorensen explained. "The witch is a puppet, a very large puppet. And I have a colleague, Iain [Gunn], behind me. He bears the bulk of the weight on his back. So I'm basically working with a puppet while trying to sing and convey a character. It's a real challenge."

Bringing A Cannibalistic Witch To Life For 'Hansel And Gretel'

The challenge for director Brenna Corner in bringing Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" to the San Diego Opera stage was how do you bring a fairy tale to life?

"One of the things that I think is really tricky about 'Hansel and Gretel' is size. How do you make two grown-ups look like they're kids and two other grown-ups look like they're adults? And then someone else looks sort of even bigger and more powerful. And quite frankly, the best way I could figure out how to do that was puppets," Corner said.

So anything that was not human became a puppet. Like the witch.

"It's different in that it's not my physicality. So, because I'm manipulating her hands, her arms, and I'm working in tandem with [Gunn] so I can't move as quickly as I might normally or as sharply but facially and vocally, I'm trying to do the same things that I would do if I were performing it without a puppet," Sorensen said.

Old Trout Puppet Workshop
Judd Palmer's designs for two of the puppet rigs used in "Hansel and Gretel."

Now if you are thinking of puppets as something you put on your hand, think again. Imagine actors completely enveloped in layers of fabric with a large sculpted head or face high above their shoulders and an arm span that exceeds 10 feet.

"We had to really kind of blow up the notion of what a puppet is in order to successfully encompass the fusion of opera and puppetry," said Judd Palmer of Old Trout Puppet Workshop in Calgary. "Our inspiration was classic 19th century children's book illustrators like Arthur Rackham or N.C. Wyeth. We wanted the whole thing to feel like it comes out of a book and it becomes the illustrations coming to life like a pop up book."

J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
A scene from San Diego Opera's production of "Hansel & Gretel." February, 2020.

Palmer designed the puppets for a production in Canada and Iain Gunn of Animal Cracker Conspiracy here in San Diego is now the puppeteer working with Sorensen to play the Witch onstage.

"I get to live inside this character that I'm helping to bring alive," Gunn said. "But she has her own voice standing right in front of me. I don't know how to describe it, but I feel like I am transported inside this imagination. It's like I'm in the 'Time Bandits' or something like that where ... we're doing something magical and it's a magical character and the only reason it's alive is because we're in there giving it our all. So it's pretty cool."

The puppets engage the audience in a unique way.

"It's this agreement that the audience makes with the performers," Corner explains. "That we agree not to see the person who's obviously a person and instead we agree to look at what is fabric and some PVC pipe and a plaster-like face, right? But we agree to do that. So what's extraordinary to me about puppetry is that as an audience, we're continually investing our imagination in seeing the thing that the performers want us to see and then as the performers keep investing in that then all of a sudden they go away. They don't exist there anymore and it becomes something else kind of magical."

J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
Tenor Joel Sorensen and behind him puppeteer Iain Gunn bring the Witch to life for San Diego Opera's production of "Hansel and Gretel."

By not trying to fool the audience and instead asking them to play along in this game of make-believe, the audience becomes a co-conspirator.

Palmer pointed out, "You can see the puppeteer right there in a ridiculous outfit. They're sweating and panting from having to run across the stage and they're waving the puppet around. It lets us all in on the joke in a way but also in the kind of the dream. It makes it evident to everybody in the audience that they are going to have to invest imaginatively in this in the same way as the people on stage are."

It's recommended that you bring a child-like sense of imagination to this show.

"That joy that you had when you were a kid," Corner said. "And you could imagine what would happen if a stick was suddenly a giant scary monster. I think that's what you want to bring to this production because that's what this production creates is the sense of wonder and joy and mystery that's inherent in being a kid."

And inherent in a story that begins with the magical possibilities of once upon a time…

San Diego Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdick’s "Hansel and Gretel" opens Saturday and will have three additional performances through Feb. 16 at San Diego Civic Theatre.