Louis Lovett returns to his native Cork with the classic operatic take on the story of Hansel and Gretel, writes Marjorie Brennan.
LOUIS LOVETT has ticked most of the creative boxes in his career as an actor, producer and director. In recent years, he and his wife Muireann Ahern have acquired a reputation for bringing theatrical productions with an inventive twist to audiences of all ages, as joint artistic directors of Theatre Lovett.
So when Irish National Opera invited Lovett and Ahern to helm a production of Hansel and Gretel by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck, they jumped at the chance.
“It was the kind of opportunity that you don’t want to turn down, even though it was a challenge working in a new genre,” says Lovett, originally from Ballinlough in Cork.
Opera is traditionally seen as one of the more ‘difficult’ art forms, so when it came to mounting a production that would appeal to younger and new audiences, Hansel and Gretel was an obvious choice, given its roots in the famous fairytale and its accessible score.
“The INO wanted to do an opera that would be engaging for both young and old, and that is Theatre Lovett’s trademark — we try to direct specifically for a mixed audience as opposed to just children’s theatre,” says Lovett.
“Hansel and Gretel is traditionally known to be a family opera; when it was staged at the Met Opera in New York in the 1890s, it very quickly became the staple Christmas opera for the entire family. Not only is the music beautiful, but it is also very catchy, a lot of the tunes are based on children’s nursery rhymes and German folk songs.”
The beauty of the music is juxtaposed with the darker undertones of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, in which the titular brother and sister are abandoned in the forest before being lured into the clutches of a predatory witch.
Lovett says he and Ahern are well aware of the delicate balance of light and shade required when tailoring productions for a mixed age audience.
“With Theatre Lovett, Muireann and I say that we like to explore the darker colours of the rainbow. But, while we do like to have a frisson in our work, we also take absolute responsibility for trying not to go too far.
“That’s why we take great care in setting an age pitch around all our work, and this is designed for children aged nine plus and adults of all ages. It isn’t a particularly scary production — rather we put a lot of our energy into creating atmosphere.”
Lovett says the effect of this approach is expertly summed up by one of the young stars of the production, 12-year-old Amelie Metcalfe.
“We asked Amelie, ‘do you think this opera is scary?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t think it’s scary. I think it’s eerie’. That’s a good word for it. But there’s a lot of fun and humour as well.”
Lovett and Ahern have also transplanted the action from the German Gothic forest of the late 1800s to the modern setting of a hotel, which has an obvious contemporary resonance.
“In the original, the family are stuck in awful poverty, while the family in our version are in a hotel because they have no home.
Lovett says there has been a great reaction from the younger audiences at the initial run at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, before the production heads out on a national tour.
“They’re enjoying it, they’re engaged by it. You know, it is opera, first and foremost; it can be hard going on any of us who aren’t diehard opera fans.
“So Muireann and I have taken directorial choices specifically designed to engage both young people and people who are perhaps new to opera, to have these hooks that can attract them into the production and then allow them to sit back and listen to that beautiful music.
“We have an incredible cast of opera singers; our orchestra is on stage as well, we’ve built it into the set, which was a design feat in itself. It is fantastic to bringing it to so many different venues.”
Dublin-based Lovett is particularly looking forward to taking the production to the Everyman Theatre in his home city.
“I don’t get back to Cork enough, I can’t wait to be on MacCurtain Street… in one of the most beautiful theatres not only in Ireland but anywhere. This will look beautiful in there, as all shows do.”
Hansel and Gretel, a co-production between Theatre Lovett, INO and the Abbey Theatre, is at the Everyman, Cork, on Tuesday, Feb 25. For other tour dates, see irishnationalopera.ie