A new Orlando operatic production of 'Hansel + Gretel' deftly combines the creepy and the classical

If you’re searching for Halloween chills, but the theme park haunted houses I surveyed last week leave you cold, why not combine the creepy and classical by ending your October with an opera?

Central Florida Vocal Arts and Opera Del Sol recently celebrated their 10th anniversary with a gala event at the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, and they’re leaping into their second decade with a spooky reimagining of Englebert Humperdink’s Hansel & Gretel at the Dr, Phillips Center’s Pugh Theater on Oct. 28 & 29.

Earlier this month, I invited resident stage director (and longtime friend) Eric Pinder over for a conversation about his first live opera production since the pandemic began, which he’s proud to promise will be “more grim than Grimm.”

Pinder’s face should be familiar to fans of Disney’s Adventurers’ Club, Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows and the Orlando Fringe, but his greatest passion — other than hockey — is opera. He’s been a part of nearly every area opera company since the old Orlando Opera went extinct, directing its short-lived successor Florida Opera Theatre as well as several shows for Opera Orlando. That was until COVID put everything on pause for over 18 months, both in the Disney theme parks where he makes his daily living, and in the opera houses he loves.

“Everything I did was toxic,” recalls Pinder. “I certainly couldn’t work with opera singers; I couldn’t direct because you couldn’t be spewing out aerosols anywhere.”
Instead, he spent his time watching modern dance and European ballet online (“My project was, how do I tell the story in movement [and] how can I use movement to help me as a director and tell better stories?”) as well as “stress eating on the couch and crying about the state of my career.”

Fortunately, Pinder has since resumed full- time employment for the Mouse, and now he’s joining forces with executive director Theresa Smith-Levin as CFVA’s stage director, following the departure of Nicole Dupre, Opera Del Sol’s founding artistic director. He’d previously worked with Smith-Levin and CFVA (which absorbed ODS under its non-profit operations in 2018) on a rewrite of The Merry Widow set in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom.

“It was interesting to take something like that and update it,” says Pinder. “How do you bring it to people who don’t necessarily know the traditions of operetta, and don’t want to sit through a production that is just ‘a museum piece’?”

Although this latest title had already been selected before he came onboard, Pinder says his dark vision for Hansel & Gretel was inspired by the fact that star Meghan Hone has previously sung both the neglectful mother and the cannibalistic witch in different, prior productions. Combining the two roles into one character created a world where “the mother is really the witch, but the father and the kids don’t know it, so they don’t realize they’re in a horror story, but everyone else in the opera does,” as Pinder explains.

That small but key innovation sparked an approach that owes a lot to cinematic scares, only sans the excessive gore. “We’re not doing a lot of blood splattering.,” says
Pinder, “but I certainly thought of films like Midsommar and Evil Dead II, where there’s horror but it’s funny, or something is weird and unsettling, but yet you’re also laughing at it at the same time.”

As a result, in Pinder’s hands this Christmas chestnut takes on a much more vicious vibe, with zombie children instead of adorable gingerbread kids, and goth wraiths replacing protective angels. “Normally it’s this cutesy, little happy holiday opera,” Pinder admits. “But what’s interesting is that it’s the same opera — the music does not change — but you’re going to have a different view of it, because of the way it’s being presented and directed.”

While it may perturb purists, Pinder says “the mission of Opera Del Sol is to make opera exciting, thrilling, and bring it to new audiences” — even those who have hereto- fore avoided the artform.

“I actually have a bunch of people com- ing to see this who have never gone to opera before; good friends of mine that just simply refuse to go to opera,” Pinder says. “Because we’re doing this in a spooky theme, and especially because it’s only 90 minutes — which I pointed out was less time than Avengers Infinity War ... I have a lot of people that are coming that have never been.”


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