Hansel and Gretel Opera Synopsis

The Synopsis of Humperdinck's Opera

DuPage Opera Theatre Hansel And Gretel
Cebula/Wikimedia Commons

Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel opera takes place in the haunted forests of the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The opera premiered on December 23, 1893, at the Hoftheater in Weimar, Germany and was conducted by Richard Strauss. Here is a synopsis of the two acts. 


Hansel and Gretel are doing their house chores, but find it hard to finish before their parents return home. Hansel complains that he is too hungry to work. Gretel fills him in on a little secret hoping that it might encourage him to complete his chores - their neighbor has given their mother a bottle of milk to make rice pudding for desert that night. Excited, Hansel finds the milk and takes a little sip of the cream on top. Gretel scolds him, but Hansel cannot help himself and begins dancing for joy. It isn't long before Gretel decides to stop doing her chores and join in Hansel's merriment. Moments later, their mother returns to find that their chores were not finished. As she reprimands them and threatens them with a spanking, she accidentally knocks over the jug of milk, spilling it all on the floor. Full of stress, the mother sends Hansel and Gretel out into the forest to pick wild strawberries. When the children depart, the mother prays to God that she will be able to provide food for her family.

Hansel and Gretel's father returns from a successful trip beyond the forest. He enters the house drunk as a skunk and passionately kisses his wife. She pushes him away, scolding him for being drunk. He calms her down and surprises her with a large bounty of breakfast foods - butter, flour, sausage, bacon, eggs, and coffee. He tells her that the townspeople are preparing for a festival, and they buy all of his brooms (even with his inflated prices) in order to clean their houses. His wife, full of happiness, leaps for joy. He asks her where the children are, but she quickly changes the subject and tells him what happened to the milk. He laughs and asks where the children are once more. She finally tells him that she sent them out into the forest to pick strawberries. Horrified, he tells his wife that the forest is haunted and inhabited by a wicked witch who lures children into her gingerbread house in order to eat them. They both quickly set out into the forest in search of their children.


In the forest, the Hansel and Gretel delight in their task. Gretel busies herself with creating a crown of flowers while Hansel fills the basket with strawberries. After she crafts her crown, she jokingly places it on Hansel's head. He scoffs and tells her that boys do not wear such things, before placing the crown back onto Gretel's head. After telling her she looks like the queen of the forest, the two siblings begin playing make-believe. Gretel orders her servant to give her a strawberry. The children continue playing their game until they hear a cuckoo bird singing in the distance. Without realizing, the two children have eaten all the strawberries and the night is fast approaching. Gretel quickly tries to find more strawberries to fill the basket, fearing her mother's anger, but cannot see in the dusk light. Hansel tries to retrace their steps but tells Gretel that they are lost. Suddenly, they hear a stranger in the distance. Frightened, they call out to the stranger. Moments later, a little man appears, startling the children. He tells them to relax and close their eyes, for he is the sandman who's come to send them off to dreamland. After sprinkling their eyes with sand, the two children begin falling asleep. Gretel reminds Hansel to say their prayers, and afterward, they fall asleep peacefully on the forest floor. Fourteen angels descend from the heavens and protect them as they sleep.

The following morning, the siblings are visited by the dew fairy. To wake them, she sprinkles a little bit of dew on their faces. Before the children come to, she quickly departs. Gretel, waking first, wakes Hansel. As the two children stretch out, they spot a large gingerbread house in the distance. Filled with curiosity, they ignore the large oven and cage attached to the mysterious house​ and begin to nibble on the gingerbread walls. They hear a voice asking in a rhyme who is nibbling on her house, but they don't think twice about it, believing it to have been the wind. They continue to eat bits and pieces of the house. The voice calls out again, but once more, the children pay no heed to it. Finally, the witch exits her home and spies the two children. She catches Hansel with a rope and pulls him closer to her. She invites them into her house, telling them that she loves to give children sweets and sugary treats. Hansel and Gretel remain weary, and after Hansel wiggles loose from the rope, they run away. The witch shouts a spell and the two children are frozen in their tracks.

Using her magic wand, she leads the children back to her home. After locking Hansel in the cage, she recants another spell which allows the children to move freely as before. Using Gretel as her assistant, she commands her to fetch the raisins and almonds. The witch tells them that she plans to fatten up Hansel in order to eat him. The witch approaches Hansel and demands him to stick out his finger. Instead, he sticks out an old chicken bone. After she feels the bone, she decides that Hansel is just too skinny to be eaten and makes Gretel get more raisins and almonds for him to eat. Hansel pretends to fall asleep, and the witch, excited for her upcoming meal, pays no attention to Gretel. Gretel steals the witches wand and loosens the lock on Hansel's cage. The witch has Gretel inspect the oven, but Gretel plays ignorant. The witch, frustrated, shows Gretel how to check the oven by sticking her head inside. The children seize the opportunity and shove the witch inside the oven, slamming the door behind her. In seconds, the oven explodes and the gingerbread men forming the fence outside of the house, transform back into children. After the explosion, Hansel and Gretel's parents finally find them and they greet one another gratefully and full of repentance.

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