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‘A much darker interpretation’ | A Q&A with Hänsel und Gretel director Alessandro Talevi

A familiar fairytale is getting an exciting makeover this year as Cape Town Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel premieres at Artscape in April 2021. The production brings together a world-class team, including the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Kazem Abdullah, and visual design by renowned photographer and visual artist Roger Ballen.

Alessandro Talevi
Award-winning stage director Alessandro Talevi will be directing Cape Town Opera’s ‘Hänsel und Gretel’

Directing this collaborative and experimental opera is award-winning stage director Alessandro Talevi. Johannesburg-born Talevi studied music and history of art at the University of the Witwatersrand and piano accompaniment at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has served as artistic director of Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells from 2006-2010. His recent work includes The Turn of the Screw (Opera North), The Love for Three Oranges (Opera Philadelphia), and La Damoiselle Elue/Litanies à la Vierge Noire (Central City Opera).

Ahead of Hänsel und Gretel, we caught up with Talevi to discuss the making of the production, his experience of collaborating with Roger Ballen, and the reality of directing an opera during a pandemic. 

Creative Feel: First off, what does a stage director’s working day look like during a global pandemic?
Alessandro Talevi:
Interesting question, because this is actually the first ‘sleeves-rolled-up’ directing work I have done since the pandemic started! My last show was in February last year. I’ve had five productions cancelled because of Covid since then. Certainly, we are all going to be very safety-conscious during this rehearsal process with masks on all the time until the final week of stage rehearsals. One thing that this pandemic has highlighted is that opera production is totally non-hierarchical. Everyone in the rehearsal room (singers, stage-managers, non-singing extras, musicians) is as important as everyone else; one person comes back with a positive test, and the whole operation gets paused.

CF: How has this influenced your work on Hänsel und Gretel?
AT: We’re lucky with this opera because it has relatively small forces – there are only half a dozen singers and no adult chorus. It makes the safety aspect easier to control because there are not many people on stage at any given time. There are some moments where fairly-close physical contact is unavoidable – between the brother and sister, and between the witch and the two children, for example. These singers are well aware of the responsibility they have in being absolutely rigorous with their personal conduct offstage, and they are encouraged to isolate as much as possible from other people during the rehearsal process. I’ve also built safety precautions into the production itself – for example with the use of striking ‘Ballenesque’ masks which also have a safety component.

Roger Ballen Hansel und Gretel Cape Town Opera
PHOTO Roger Ballen

CF: You’re working closely with the artist Roger Ballen for this production. How do visual and performing arts practices lend themselves to this kind of collaboration?
AT: Unless a director decides to design the production himself, he or she will always be working with a designer to realise the visual aspect of the show (the sets, the costumes, the general visual ambience) and give impact to the storytelling. Usually, this role is taken by someone who is specifically trained as a theatre designer because there are numerous technical aspects about the theatre to understand and to take on board. However, sometimes a director sees the work of an artist outside of the theatrical world and gets the hunch that their visual style will be a perfect fit for the type of production that is required; this was the case with me and Roger Ballen.

CF: You’re also known for your engaging and provocative visual style as a director. How do visual style and aesthetic factor into an opera like Hänsel und Gretel specifically? 
AT: Roger and his collaborator Marguerite Rossouw have developed a distinctive dark visual style which blends realism with dreamlike and nightmarish imagery. His photos are extraordinarily theatrical. They have a peculiar way of touching the deeper subconscious impulses of their viewers. It is this aspect which interested me, because the best fairytales are the ones where the dark and dangerous elements are not avoided, and the stories seem to hint at very profound messages which communicate to children and adults alike. Bruno Bettelheim, the great child psychologist, argues that it is extremely important for the child that the darkest elements of the traditional fairytales are not removed from the story to make them seem safer or ‘sweeter’. He argues that it is of the utmost importance that the child engages with the threatening ideas (abandonment, abduction, being devoured alive, etc) through the safe medium of storytelling in order for their little mind to develop the tools to make sense of a seemingly chaotic world and to confront its negative aspects with courage.

PHOTO Roger Ballen

In choosing a setting for my production of Hänsel und Gretel, it struck me that here in South Africa it is not hard to conjure up a world where the menace of hunger and the vulnerability of children are all too real. One only has to look out one’s car window to see poor children who have been left to fend for themselves or who have extremely precarious and vulnerable domestic situations. Bettelheim insists that the poverty present in Hänsel und Gretel should not be romanticised; it is the dire situation that the parents find themselves in that drives them to do seemingly unspeakable and desperate things like abandoning their offspring.
     This contemporary South African context is the basis for my production, filtered through the medium of Roger Ballen’s dark, subconscious-focused and dreamlike visual world.

CF: How closely have you stuck to the original tale of Hänsel und Gretel for this production?
AT: The combination of a setting with contemporary South African references, and Roger’s visual style, means that the story can actually be told quite simply without any major conceptual contortions. In line with the original reading of this fairytale, I have however countered the opera’s rather saccharine moments with a much darker interpretation. The angels, the Sandman (the creature who puts the children to sleep) and the Dew Fairy (who wakes them) are linked with a rather more menacing and sinister intention.

CF: What can audiences expect from this opera? Is it a night out for the whole family?     
AT: This production is intended to speak to the inner child within every adult. There are moments which might make people distinctly uneasy, even while they are laughing (let’s not forget there is also a darkly comic aspect to this opera). It’s probably advisable to leave the kids at home for this one!*

Cape Town Opera’s new Hänsel und Gretel will premiere at Artscape in April 2021. Covid-19 protocols will be strictly observed at all Cape Town Opera events. Seating may be limited, and performance dates are subject to change. Find out more about the production on Creative Feel or on capetownopera.co.za

*An age restriction of PG13 is advised.

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