The spectacle and "a little bit of mystery," were what first drew Raven McMillion to opera — or as she describes her initial reaction: "How are these people making these sounds which are almost otherworldly?"
Now a Houston Grand Opera Studio Artist, soprano McMillion will have a chance to show off her abilities in hitting those awe-inspiring notes as she takes on the role of the sister in the classic Hansel and Gretel
story in the opera version composed by Engelbert Humperdinck, with a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette.
"This was a new role for me," she says adding: "Gretel is a really cool part. It's very fun to play your inner child. And with the digital version, I knew it was going to be a creative production."
For anyone who doesn't know the basic fairy tale written by the Grimm brothers or needs a memory nudge, the children Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their poor parents and sent out into the forest where they come across a Gingerbread House. Its owner, a witch, lures them inside with promises of more food, where she traps them with the intention of fattening up Hansel so she can cook and eat him. Through trickery with a bone, the siblings are able to put off the cooking session and eventually they turn the tables on the witch, shoving her into the oven where she burns to death (German fairy tales are not for the faint-hearted). They run away to be reunited happily with their woodcutter father.
There are a lot of variations on the story (which probably wasn't original with the Grimms to begin with) and in the Humperdinck version written in the late 19th Century, the children are not abandoned by their parents but are sent out into the woods to find strawberries by their mother after their horseplay in the house leads to some spilt milk. Once her husband hears where they have gone, they both go searching for their children. The witch still ends up burned to death and in this account, other children who have been turned into gingerbread regain their human form.
"I think it’s a fun show for everybody and, of course, there are a tons of different productions for the show, but the music he wrote is very catchy, very tuneful and then at some other points very profound — some really, really beautiful music. I also think that people are familiar with the story and that probably attracts a lot of people."
Raven McMillon, Richard Trey Smagur as The Witch, and Sun-Ly Pierce
Screenshot by Houston Grand Opera
The digital production was filmed in four days using a green screen on a Wortham Center stage with special effects put in afterward, McMillion said. "The biggest challenge was probably the green screen. We had some props; anything we would really hold in our hands we would probably have as a prop. But no set really and very little orientation of what was going to be in the final product because it was all being added — animation — after we filmed.
"It helped tremendously for me to basically always have Hansel [mezzo soprano Sun-Ly Pierce] there to relate to.
"During our rehearsal we wore masks and we also got our COVID tests every week because we weren’t necessarily distanced for staging. Once we got to recording is really the first time we did any of it without masks and it was kind of funny seeing Hansel's entire face for the first time."
This production is the only digital one that HGO artists were not recorded live, she said. "We prerecorded our voices, our singing with the orchestra. And then what you're going to see is us lip synching to our own voices while acting on the green screens." She said this made it really tough during rehearsals when the director couldn't see how the lip synching was going because of the masks. They brought in clear masks. "But with opera singers taking opera singer breaths it was just like suction cups to our faces," she said, laughing.
"In general during the year audiences have become a little more accustomed to watching opera at home," McMillon said. "Even people that love going to the opera, of course, and want to go back live. But there is something about the convenience and the comfort of being at home and turning on an opera that you have access to. I also think and I hope that this has brought some new audiences and made it more accessible. I think our production is going to look really cool."
The digital production of Hansel and Gretel is scheduled to premiere at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 28. In English. Available through hgo.org/digital or through Marquee TV. For more information, visit houstongrandopera.org. Free.