Created 80 years after the Brothers Grimm released their Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, librettist Adelheid Wette’s softer setting of the “Hansel and Gretel” story brings subtlety and dimension to the themes of poverty and survival present in this classic fairy tale.

As we explore partnerships with Community Housing Partnership and Compass Family Services, two organizations serving individuals and families transitioning from homelessness in San Francisco this season, the lens Adelheid places on the opera Hansel and Gretel mirrors the complexities in what these organizations address and how they teach the public to support neighbors experiencing homelessness in our home city.

Instead of an evil stepmother who plots to abandon Hansel and Gretel in the woods, Adelheid’s version centers on Hansel and Gretel’s biological mother and father, overwhelmed by the pressures of trying to provide for their children. This stress is evident in the mother’s scolding of her children, as she sets them off into the woods to gather food for the family.

Today, families with children represent 33% of the homeless population, the majority of whom are single mothers. “The reality is that the most visible homeless population are the single adults that you see on the street. The population we serve, homeless families, are the less visible population. You could walk by a homeless family, and you wouldn’t realize they were struggling,” says Compass’ Executive Director, Erica Kisch.

At a Community Housing Partnership event last season, we learned that many people experiencing homelessness may go as long as a week with no human interaction. The close relationships clients form with support staff are a literal lifeline, as are the benevolent characters added by Adelheid to watch over the children during their first night away from home. Both Community Housing Partnership and Compass provide wrap-around services, helping clients to achieve self-sufficiency through stable housing, economic stability, and access to legal services.

After the witch is defeated through their resourcefulness, Hansel and Gretel are surprised when more captured children emerge from their gingerbread forms, frozen, blind, and in need of healing even after danger has passed.

“When children and their families go through major trauma like losing their home, it has long-lasting effects on children’s health and their families’ health. Not only does Compass provide a full range of childcare with enrichment activities for children, they also provide behavioral and mental health counseling for the children, their parents, and families to enable them to grow and rebuild their lives,” says Dr. Warren Browner, CEO of Sutter Health CPMC.

Throughout the story Hansel and Gretel use song and dance as a means of escape. So too does Sophia, an 11year-old Compass client, whose favorite Compass programs are afterschool activities like ice skating, bowling, and concerts. Last spring, San Francisco Opera artists supported Community Housing Partnership’s annual “A Night With the Stars” by coaching residents in creating moving musical performances. This season, we work with both organizations to co-create experiences for clients and staff that use art-making as a means of sharing stories, processing trauma, and cultivating deeper human relationships.

In the end, “one tender touch” from Gretel is the most powerful magic, awakening the frozen children into song. Martin, one of the 90% of Compass’s clients who have achieved stable housing, thanks the agency for providing “a lot of help, and most importantly, a lot of love.”

For more information on our work with Compass Family Services and Community Housing Partnership and for ways to support individuals and families experiencing homelessness this season, visit sfopera.com/earnyourwings.

Earn Your Wings is supported by a Civic Practice Grant from OPERA America’s Opera Fund.