You can serve it light and sticky-sweet, or you can stir in a strong flavour of dark foreboding: Engelbert Humperdinck’s German fairytale opera Hansel and Gretel can be played in many different ways. For award-winning director Olivia Fuchs, however, the choice is clear: her new production of the Brothers Grimm tale for Garsington Opera is influenced by the history of Germany since the Second World War. Her inspiration comes, she tells me during a rehearsal break, from her own childhood.

“I was brought up in West Germany from the age of five, I lived there until I was 18. There was the reality of the East/West division, the wall was still in place. My father’s family all came from East Germany, and we used to go and visit occasionally. It was a real shock to go into the East as a child, it was so different, and very grey and drab. You felt the restrictions and the poverty: my grandfather’s flat had toilets on the half-landing, which they shared with other people, they had the bath in the kitchen.

“I remember going to a shoe shop — people were excited and said: ‘Oooh, the shoes have come in’. “But there was literally only one style of shoe, in various different sizes. You had to get there quickly to get your size. We used to send over parcels of things which they’d seen advertised when they illegally watched West German television.”

Her vision for Hansel and Gretel crystalised, Olivia explains, while she was working in the former East Germany much more recently. “The difference between East and West is still quite strong, and that brought me to wanting to set the production in that East-West world. “I feel the children have been traumatised, and when that happens you start developing fantasies about the things you don’t have, and the things you want. “Hansel and Gretel seems to be like that, because the first act is so much about the social realisation of poverty and deprivation — Hansel and Gretel are hungry all the time. In the second act you end up in no-man’s land, where your fears come out, but so do your dreams. Then the third act is quite surreal, you’ve entered into a different space, a dreamlike, imaginary world. It all reminds me of East Germany, and how people were looking to the West for inspiration.”

All of which could make for a gloomy evening. But watching Olivia rehearse, and looking at models of the sets and costumes, it is very evident that there’s going to be a lot of colour too.

As Hansel (Claudia Huckle) and Gretel (Anna Devin) set off on their journey into the woods, the rehearsal erupts into laughter — Olivia is explaining how she has again filtered her own experience into the production.

“I spent a night in the woods on my own in California, in the dark. I had no tent, and people said there were bears prowling about. I hadn’t even thought about that! It was very scary because every little sound makes you think you’re being pursued. “But I had my alarm clock with me, and I got a great sense of security just by listening to its regular beat. Hence our Dew Fairy in the show has lots of clocks!”


Season runs from June 7 to July 20. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Rossini’s Maometto Secondo
Tickets: call 01865 361636 or