Christopher Busietta
Tenor and Music Teacher

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The Witch is coming.
The Witch is coming..

Meditations on the Witch

Today I will be making my role debut as the Witch (Knusperhexe) in Hänsel und Gretel, an opera by Humperdinck based on a classic fairytale written by the Brothers Grimm.

This role is a strange one. It was originally written for a mezzo-soprano to sing, but a tradition has arisen that this role is sometimes taken by a character tenor, rather than a mezzo-soprano. The consequence of that changes the character of the role somewhat.

Though everyone has a strong vision of what a classic fairytale witch looks like, it is a very challenging task to find the character, let alone to sing it.

Here are (what I think) are some interesting things I have found playing the role.

Vocally, for a tenor it is very difficult to sing

The tessitura is uncomfortable low much of the time, there are certainly notes that fall out of the tenor’s lower range and yet there are sections with notes at the top of the tenor range as well.

A high passage in the Witch's music. A low passage in the Witch's music.
An example of the witch's high-lying passages. An example of the witch's low-lying passages.

You must produce a sound that will still carry over the orchestra and yet create enough ugliness in the sound like a depraved witch. Sometimes you are not singing the notes, but are growling them or screaming them.

A stereotypical Witch.
A stereotypical Witch.

Who is the witch?

Quite a lot of the time when I’ve been asked what role I’m playing next, when I reply the Witch, I invariably get the response: “That’s a fun role!”

However, for me it is something completely different: playing the witch is as fun as playing a character who kidnaps two children, locks them away, starving one of them and threatening to kill and eat the other one.

Yes – you get a certain sense of perverse enjoyment trying to explore (or in my case, searching very deep to find) your dark side, but I get the feeling that is not what people think of when they think “fun”. I guess they picture a cartoon witch flying around on a broom cackling and not actually what a witch really represents.

Kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch.
Kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch.

The more I think of this role in the context of the Brothers Grimm Fairytales, which served as cautionary tales for children, is that this character actually represents the dangers killers or rapists who kidnap their victims… especially of children.

People like Wolfgang Priklopil, who kidnapped a ten year old girl Natascha Kampusch and held her hostage for eight years bears a striking resemblance to the character of the witch. There are numerous stories of paedophiles who use sweets to lure their victims.

The story of Hänsel und Gretel strikes me as one that is warning children not to trust these sorts of people. As a man playing the witch, it only increases this similarity.

The house in the woods also has parallels to remote locations where serial killers have been known to take their victims.

The other thing to consider is how witches were thought of back in the day when people actually believed in them. Basically that these were people with supernatural abilities who could cause great harm to the community should they be crossed. That they had a pact with the devil and that they were associated with naked dancing and cannibalistic infanticide – exactly like the witch in Hänsel und Gretel. Trials against sorcery in Germany only stopped around the time the brother’s Grimm were born.

Me hanging around before the Hereinspaziert concert.
Me hanging around before the Hereinspaziert concert.

Augsburg’s Witch

The witch in our production is one who pretends to be a nice old lady, but since it is being played by a man (with distended belly from eating too many kids), she has extra trouble concealing her true identity. She tries very hard to be sexy and fails miserably.

Inspiration came I stole inspiration from several other characters: Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” & Divine’s various performances (as suggestions from the director), while the crazier parts of my character I was inspired by Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lector, accounts I’d read of other kidnappers and even seeing some footage of caged monkeys.

But mix it all together, and add the fact that there is more of me than anything else in the character, and it’s something totally different of course!

Theater Augsburg’s Hänsel und Gretel opens Saturday 25th October 2014 at 7:30pm!

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