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The dark forest comes alive

Douglas Fitch imagined the creatures, and he and the L.A. Opera are making them real for `Hansel and Gretel' audiences.

November 12, 2006|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

DIRECTOR-DESIGNER Douglas Fitch may be in his 40s, but he's on very close terms with his inner 10-year-old. At a costume fitting for his production of "Hansel and Gretel," opening next Sunday at Los Angeles Opera, Fitch is ebullient.

First, there is a tall totem pole-like creature, resembling a bear with an owl sitting on top and an extra set of arms. Next, there is the forest gnome, a squiggly-wiggly-legged fellow with a rounded body. Despite his wacky proportions and an inner harness, it looks as though the gnome is going to be able to move about freely after all.

In short, the process is far from complete, but the animals are coming to life. "We're talking about taking the hump down just a little bit," Fitch says of the gnome. "But, wow, it's amazing. It's going to work. I'm so thrilled."

He has a right to his delight. It's been no mean feat, but the L.A. Opera costume shop seems to have achieved the near impossible. "When working with Doug, his imagination has no limits, and therefore the inspiration to produce totally magical costume looks is enormous," says company costume director Jennifer Green.

Indeed, Fitch is no stranger to the fanciful. Conductor Alan Gilbert, who has known the director-designer for years, says it's the dualities of Fitch's work he most admires. "He has a childlike imagination informed by a Freudian understanding," says Gilbert.

And that combination is what this new "Hansel and Gretel" will be all about. Originally written in German, the opera will be sung in a new English libretto by Richard Sparks with supertitles. Starring Lucy Schaufer (Hansel) and Maria Kanyova (Gretel), it will receive eight performances, half of them matinees.

The strategy is clearly aimed at attracting a family audience. "It was meant to be a 'Nutcracker' for L.A. Opera -- a portal into the opera for children or others for whom the art form seemed intimidating," says Christopher Koelsch, the company's director of artistic planning. What the "Nutcracker" example also suggests is a reliable cash cow, based on a familiar story, that can be trotted out each holiday season.

And although this won't be a traditional "Hansel and Gretel," the basic story and its universal appeal remain unchanged.

"The opera is really about this growth that we all have to make, over and over again in our lives, becoming more comfortable inside ourselves," says Fitch. "And what that really means is leaning into discomfort. You have to go through the dark forest in order to get to the other side. And something bad might happen. But you're not going to get anywhere if you don't do that. So I've been calling this forest a metaphorest -- the realm of transformation."

By late October, seeing the metaphorest still takes some imagination. In an upstairs rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it is all but invisible, with chairs and a small table standing in for what will eventually become a mound in the midst of an outsized magical mushroom forest.

It's a critical scene for the wayward siblings. "Up until now, they've always been together, and then when Hansel admits that he's lost, Gretel starts to shift a little bit and takes responsibility differently," the director explains.

So they work through the section of the score several times, with Fitch shaping Schaufer and Kanyova's movements to best convey this transitional moment. By the third time through, the performers are on the floor, in front of the makeshift mound, separated from each other and literally leaning into that very discomfort that Fitch believes is key to the tale's message.

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From a Grimm beginning

GERMAN composer Engelbert Humperdinck's best-known work, "Hansel and Gretel" is based on the Grimm fairy tale. First performed in 1893, it tells of a brother and sister who are sent out to find food and get lost in the woods, where there's a witch who bakes children in her oven. Hansel and Gretel outsmart the witch and release the many other children she has turned into gingerbread.

For Fitch, it's a tale he's long been waiting to tell. "It seems in many ways destined," he says, "just because there are so many elements of 'Hansel and Gretel' in my own life."

One element dates to his boyhood in Coventry, Conn., where his family had a puppet theater. "We used to do a crazy new modern version of 'Hansel and Gretel' called 'Hamilton and Geraldine,' " he recalls. "It was one of our big hits. They were in a camping trailer, and it was very silly."

A decade or so later, Fitch graduated from Harvard with a major in visual and environmental studies. He stayed on as a visual arts tutor, which is when he met Gilbert, who was a music student.

Fitch was mulling the idea of professional training, but not in music or theater.

"I was thinking I was going to be an architect," he recalls. "But I kept not going to architecture school, and instead I started getting jobs to design really interesting homes. I got hired as an architectural designer, which is what it's called if you don't have a license."

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