The Man Behind the Baton: A conversation with Kostis Protopapas

In last week's Urban Tulsa Weekly, I wrote a preview of Tulsa Opera's Hansel and Gretel. I wanted to see the show last week so I could review it here, but I just did not have enough time. I will see it, though, this Friday at 7:30 in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa PAC. I encourage you to do the same. The show closes with a final performance on Sunday.

Below is a transcribed copy of my interview with TO's artistic director and conductor for Hansel and Gretel, Kostis Protopapas. He is so much fun to talk to, and I thought you all should experience some of that. Below our interview is a cast list and brief synopsis of the show. Enjoy! See you in the theater!

Why did Tulsa Opera choose this particular interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel”?
This was designed by Maurice Sendak, a famous illustrator of children’s books and the creator of “Where the Wild Things Are.” He has also created several opera productions. This is one of his most famous ones; this is his trademark. He has a European background, so everything is very two-dimensional, as far as the color and atmosphere and mood. It’s a pretty unique production.

It also has some pretty whimsical effects, like the witch’s house has all kinds of moving parts. It has eyes that sort of follow the performers. The set has a life of its own, this sort of haunting personality that is sort of a trademark of the Maurice Sendak style. It’s very beautiful, but it’s a really huge set. There are a lot of pieces. And all of the scene changes happen a vista, which means the curtain doesn’t come down. All the transformations happen while the music is playing and the action is happening on stage.

It’s a very unique show. The story is, of course, the classic “Hansel and Gretel,” but there are some added fantasy elements. The story is one that people are very familiar with, but there are some new and unexpected elements.

Why did TO decide to perform the English version, rather than the original German?
“Hansel and Gretel” is one of the two or three operas of the European repertoire that, nowadays, is as often performed as English as in German. It’s something that provides that extra step of contact with the audience. And also, we hope that people will bring their children, and children cannot necessarily read (surtitles) as fast as adults, so it’s an element of immediacy.

Tell me why you chose “Hansel and Gretel” for TO’s 2008-2009 season.
We always want to have a balance in the repertoire, musically and thematically. We always have at least one or two very standard Italian operas, because they are the backbone of operatic repertoire, and this season we started with “La Boheme.” We’re going to close this season with “Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’Amore),” which is also an Italian opera by Gaetano Donizetti, but it was composed a lot earlier than “La Boheme,” and it’s a light comedy. It’s a part of the bell canto style, so the music is sort of similar to something like the “Barber of Seville.” It’s a light, Italian, comic opera.

And in the middle, I thought, what can we put in the middle that is musically different from the other two yet still a classic and also might be appealing to people who want to bring their kids? Tulsa is a great town for kids, and we’re always looking for something to involve the kids in. And I think this will be a good opportunity for people to bring their kids to the opera, especially since the current generation of opera-goers, that was their first opera. It used to be very popular as a first opera. The Tulsa Opera did it a lot in the ‘60s, and a lot of our subscribers and board members and other people I talk to are all very excited because they remember going and seeing “Hansel and Gretel” early on. They remember loving it because the music is, of course, really beautiful. It’s late 19th century German romantic music.

Maureen mentioned the very unique relationship she must have with the conductor for this production. Tell me about that from the conductor’s point of view.
Our production is extremely active. There is no “stand and sing” at any point. And the way it has been directed has as much activity as you would expect because the performers, especially Maureen, not only have to sing nonstop, but she also has to dance, she has to sing on her back… Maureen is a great actress, and it’s amazing how much activity and acting she packs into her performance. So, in order to achieve that, I have to be very careful to make sure the tempo is right. Because not only does she have to sing, but she also has to dance in this tempo. And make sure that she has time to breathe and catch her breath because she never really stops singing.

Also, it’s very interesting to me because I’ve actually never conducted this opera before. Three of our principals have done it before: Maureen, who is our Gretel; Jennifer Roderer, who has done the Witch a lot; and Dana Beth Miller, who is the Mother, has done the Mother before. It’s been a learning experience for me because the performers who have done it before know what they need. I am the one shaping the overall musical performance, but it is good to have singers who know what works for them. And also of course, in this case, because we have a really big orchestra (55 musicians) in the pit, my responsibility is to make sure that the orchestra does not overpower the singers.

Again, the show is very active, and that’s the way it should be, because it should be exciting and entertaining. The singers are all over the stage, so we have to make sure that the orchestra does not cover them but that the music is still really alive.

Is there anything that you’ve learned, conducting this production, that you might do differently the next time you conduct “Hansel and Gretel”?
You always learn something. This is a different score because it’s in the German tradition, which means its very much through-composed and very much orchestral, in that the singers are sort of a member of the orchestra – one voice with the orchestra – and, of course, they are the most important voice. It’s sort of more composed like a symphony, and it has structure. And that’s not entirely new to me, but it’s sort of like going back a few years to when I was in school and I was studying a lot of symphonies.

It’s a completely different process because a lot of times, especially with Italian operas, you come from the vocal line. In this one, you go from the orchestral score when you start learning it. In that sense, it has been a different experience for me. I’m really enjoying it. I’m sort of using a different set of skills that I don’t use as much. Every opera has different elements, and you always learn something. You kind of go into it with a certain idea of how we expect things to work, but you always have to keep an open mind.

Is there anything else about this production that you’d like to share with our readers?
One thing that has impressed me during this is that we have a really great cast of performers. Not only are they great singers, but they are also real performers. So there is movement, and they have a lot of fun. And what’s surprising is how funny a lot of the show is. You don’t necessarily think of “Hansel and Gretel” as being a funny show, but Tara Faircloth directs it with a lot of humor. It’s an extremely entertaining show because of the way it’s directed and because these people can really do a lot of things other than sing, and they bring a lot to the show.

The Cast:
Maureen McKay

Blythe Gaissert

Jennifer Roderer

Dana Beth Miller

Robert Hyman

Kostis Protopapas

Tara Faircloth

Designed by Maurice Sendak
Original Production by Frank Corsaro

Designed by Maurice Sendak
Associate Set and Costume Designer, Peter Hauser

Synopsis, borrowed from The Metropolitan Opera
Composer: Engelbert Humperdinck

ACT I. Hansel and Gretel have been left at home alone by their parents. When Hansel complains to his sister that he is hungry, Gretel shows him some milk that a neighbor has given them for the family’s supper. To entertain them, she begins to teach her brother how to dance. Suddenly their mother returns. She scolds the children for playing and wants to know why they have gotten so little work done. When she accidentally spills the milk, she angrily chases the children out into the woods to pick strawberries.

Hansel and Gretel’s father returns home drunk. He is pleased because he was able to make a considerable amount of money that day. He brings out the food he has bought and asks his wife where the children have gone. She explains that she has sent them into the woods. Horrified, he tells her that the children are in danger because of the witch who lives there. They rush off into the woods to look for them.

ACT II. Gretel sings while Hansel picks strawberries. When they hear a cuckoo calling, they imitate the bird’s call, eating strawberries all the while, and soon there are none left. In the sudden silence of the woods, the children realize that they have lost their way and grow frightened. The Sandman comes to bring them sleep by sprinkling sand on their eyes. Hansel and Gretel say their evening prayer. In a dream, they see fourteen angels protecting them.

ACT III. The Dew Fairy appears to awaken the children. Gretel wakes Hansel, and the two find themselves in front of a gingerbread house. They do not notice the Witch, who decides to fatten Hansel up so she can eat him. She immobilizes him with a spell. The oven is hot, and the Witch is overjoyed at the thought of her banquet. Gretel has overheard the witch’s plan, and she breaks the spell on Hansel. When the Witch asks her to look in the oven, Gretel pretends she doesn’t know how: the Witch must show her. When she does, peering into the oven, the children shove her inside and shut the door. The oven explodes, and the many gingerbread children the Witch had enchanted come back to life. Hansel and Gretel’s parents appear and find their children. All express gratitude for their salvation.