By the end of the nineteenth century, readers of fairy tales had come to expect certain themes, including Christian moral ideals, happy endings, and scenes depicting the socialization of children within domestic and school settings. Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 adaptation of Hänsel und Gretel for the Hoftheater in Weimar participated in this literary and didactic tradition. The libretto, written by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette, accommodated social expectations around the fairy-tale genre: it offered an opportunity for opera-goers to learn what constituted “proper” and “improper” traits in children, as well as the ideal relationship of children to their parents, all while leading towards a happy ending. But Hänsel und Gretel did not simply reproduce convention: in diverging from tradition to comment upon contemporary events, debates, and problems, Humperdinck and Wette reflected in both text and music social and political tensions around childhood, labor, gender politics, and domesticity in 1890s Germany.

Hänsel und Gretel premiered at a moment of political unrest and social turmoil across Europe. Under Otto von Bismarck’s rule, constitutional reform seemed imminent, and representatives of the German states and their political parties were in near constant dispute over suffrage, educational laws, religious freedoms, and social and economic modernization. New banking regulations, investment opportunities, currency standardization, free trade, and industrialization, especially in rural regions, brought optimism in the 1860s and 1870s, which came to an abrupt halt with the devastating 1873 worldwide depression. As agricultural imports from America and Russia flooded the European markets, at least twenty percent of German businesses filed for bankruptcy and more than one million Germans emigrated to North and South America to escape economic and social stress. It is little wonder, then, that Humperdinck imagined that a fairy tale—a vehicle for moral and cultural education with a guaranteed cheerful conclusion—might appeal to German opera audiences in 1893.

As Jeff Vandrimmelen has shown in Children All Grown Up: Child Labor, Gender Roles, and Pedagogical Function in Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hänsel and Gretel’ (2006), Humperdinck and Wette placed the opera’s familiar narrative in direct conversation with contemporary political anxieties, particularly around child labor, education and pedagogy, gender roles in the household, and religious liberties. In the decades of European depression, it was common for children to be punished, mistreated, and even abandoned; the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein’s earlier versions of Hänsel und Gretel emphasize these themes. Humperdinck and Wette’s version, however, expands this element of the story to include scenes of child labor (also common in the period) and the children’s broader adoption of traditional adult responsibilities. In Act I, for example, Hänsel and Gretel work together in the home in equal capacities alongside their working parents; every member of this household works, with scenes of labor presenting a foil to the children’s longing for an innocent childhood. While the children work side-by-side, unlike in earlier versions of the fairy tale, Hänsel does not adopt a protective stance over his sister; instead, it is Gretel who teaches her brother to control his emotions, focus on the tasks at hand, and draw on Christian teachings to remain steadfast. In one moment, she instructs her brother: “Wenn die Not aufs Höchste steigt, Gott der Herr die Hand euch reicht!” (“When the need rises to its highest point, God will take your hand!”). In an age of increasing emancipation of women and education of girls, Humperdinck and Wette imply that children—including, and especially, girls—hold resilience and strength within themselves and deserve positions of value within the home and German society more generally.

The parents’ occupations also differ in Humperdinck’s opera from earlier, more familiar versions of the tale. The children’s father is not a woodcutter but a broom-maker in Humperdinck’s opera. Not a neutral or innocent symbol, the broom was a symbol of patriarchal authority and sacred power that can literally sweep evil away; when it fails to do so, the broom symbolizes a desire to control or even embody evil, one reason why brooms are often associated with witches. Vandrimmelen suggests that by assigning the father this occupation, he—not his wife, as in the Grimms’ tale—is aligned with the witch, a gesture that could be understood as critiquing contemporary trends in patriarchal authority. Hänsel and Gretel’s mother is not much kinder: she reinforces the children’s role as laborers, reprimanding them for playing instead of working and ordering them to march into the woods to find food. The children’s status in this household is clear, even as they are punished for their inability to fully function in what Humperdinck and Wette might have perceived as roles suitable only for adults.

In general, Wette’s libretto might be read as a critique of child labor and the sometimes callous treatment of children during this period, advocating before an audience of children and parents for a more innocent, carefree vision of childhood that would not become commonplace until the first decades of the twentieth century. At the time of its premiere, the moral lessons of the opera were clear: particularly given their familiarity with the tale, audience members would have noticed Humperdinck and Wette’s narrative liberties and their relevance to contemporary politics. One reviewer writing in 1907, for example, called the opera a “mirror of life” with strong ethical connotations. The fading of these resonances over time has undoubtedly caused the opera to seem more conventional today than it did to its initial audiences. Revisiting the politics of Wette’s libretto and understanding the social and political connections it drew permits Hänsel und Gretel to resonate once again, per Vandrimmelen, as “a discourse about how children deserve a childhood free of abuse and adult anxiety, a childhood that equally educates both genders, and a childhood that instills confidence and religious faith.”