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Steinberg launches annual Lyric Opera contest: Think of it as ‘Hunger Games 1893’

A dress rehearsal 'Hansel   Gretel' Lyric OperHouse Friday November 30 2012. In this scene Hansel Gretel dream about

A dress rehearsal of "Hansel & Gretel" at the Lyric Opera House on Friday, November 30, 2012. In this scene, Hansel and Gretel dream about a feast made by angel chefs. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:17AM

If hungry children dreamt of angels, they of course would be fat angel cooks, in toques and chef’s whites, moving slowly, as befits a dream, setting silver-domed platters of food upon a long, white-clothed table.

It’s time for my annual Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric contest — the fifth, if you can believe that — which takes 100 lucky readers to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the good folks there have chosen “Hansel und Gretel,” a Christmas favorite, a bit of holiday mayhem intended for the kiddies (what, you think “Hunger Games” invented it?) but with plenty of meat to satisfy adults, too. The music is by Engelbert Humperdinck — no, not the British singer, a kind of second-tier Tom Jones, but the German composer, himself a sort of second-tier Richard Wagner; in fact, his assistant for a time, and there are definite Wagnerian overtones to “Hansel und Gretel,” though instead of a buxom woman in horns waving a spear, you’ve got a buxom woman standing on a table waving a wooden spoon. Half “Sweeney Todd,” half “Wizard of Oz.”

Brothers Grimm fairy tales are far more, well, grim than the Disneyfied versions we’re fed as children, and this is a frightening story of parental abandonment and hunger. The opera, which opens Friday, goes light on the first — the kids get lost picking strawberries, and while mom’s not very nice, she’s no monster either — but heavy on the hunger part.

“A great production allows us to really find the essence of a piece,” said Lyric general director Anthony Freud. “‘Hansel and Gretel,’ if you read the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is a vicious, violent story. A story about hunger. A story about cruelty. A story about cannibalism.

“Humperdinck’s music is a gorgeous, romantic, Wagnerian score, with some of the best tunes ever written,” Freud said. “What I find so wonderful about this production is it draws those two contrasting elements and finds a theatrical world that does justice to both. It’s creepy. It’s spooky. It’s funny.”

The Lyric tries to pick an opera for the contest that can be easily digested by newcomers, and, having seen the dress rehearsal, I think this works well because: a) the music is beautiful; b) the two leads, Maria Kanyova (Gretel) and Elizabeth DeShong (Hansel), have strong voices and dramatic flair — the pair brings the fun that Freud mentioned. They’re kids, from the moment the curtain rises on their breath-holding contest; c) a great supporting cast, particularly Kiri Deonarine, who shines in her brief appearance as the Dew Fairy — a mom escaped from a dish soap commercial off German television, in her yellow rubber gloves and tiny silver wings, all smiles and Eva Braun peroxide blonde hairdo, perkily cleaning up leftovers from the siblings’ banquet dream.

And d) it’s only two hours long, which can be a kindness if you aren’t used to opera and sometimes even if you are. There is a flaw, I feel obligated to reluctantly mention: The witch’s house, normally a showpiece confection of gingerbread and gumdrops, is rendered as a 2-foot-tall chocolate cake. The set plays with perspective, and for one moment, I dared hope the dinky cake was meant to be the house in the distance, that the curtain would fly up and reveal the true house in its full-scale, mega-caloric glory.

But no. A few bites and the kids are inside the witch’s industrial kitchen, with its grisly hacksaws. It struck me not as minimalism, but economy. Though when I recounted all this at dinner, my oldest boy — a more natural opera fan than I — replied, sensibly, “It’s the music. Who cares what the sets are like?”

Indeed. “Hansel und Gretel” must make an engaging evening, because I’m going back again Friday and a third time Jan. 11, with the winners, so will have plenty of time to contemplate just how weird German culture was before they made their slide into evil (which isn’t too hard to do during a production whose dramatic highpoint hinges on who gets shoved into an oven). We’ll announce all the contest details — another tradition: figuring this out on the fly — next week.

Christmas is coming

On a more modest yet still engaging scale, Lyric violist Frank Babbitt is performing his one-man show of “A Christmas Carol” at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, 205 N. Prospect, Park Ridge. I saw him do it there last year, using Charles Dickens’ own reading text from his 1868 tour of America and Europe. It’s an extraordinary, intimate evening of live storytelling and music, the tale delivered the way it was meant to be, in Dickens’ language, enhanced by Babbitt’s resonating voice and rich viola. Admission is whatever you wish to donate, plus some canned goods for the food pantry. And, if last year is any indication, there are really, really, really good homemade cookies served afterward, and while I wouldn’t insult Frank’s art by saying it’s worth it just for the cookies, let’s say the cookies display a virtuosity all their own.

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