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Culture

A Risque German Fairy Tale

Culturally speaking, the New Year period is usually reserved for mainstream family entertainment. But not this year it seems as a chilling new production of "Hansel and Gretel" gets set to open at a German theater.

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Roughing it in Erfurt: Lakey (Hansel, left) and Serfling (Gretel)

Italian opera director Giancarlo del Monaco's adults-only treatment of the much-loved 1893 opera by Engelbert Humperdinck -- set to premiere in Erfurt, Germany on Jan. 15 -- has been billed as a sinister study of pedophilia.

Admittedly, it was preceded by a more palatable version in December. In the run-up to Christmas, Erfurt Theater staged a traditional, feel-good "Hansel and Gretel," complete with gingerbread houses and old-school wicked witches.

But, based on the story by the famously no-nonsense Grimm Brothers, the second version is much closer to the original -- and therefore strictly x-rated.

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Giancarlo del Monaco

"Underlying the libretto is a tacit comment on pedophilia, violence and sexual abuse of children," del Monaco (photo) said in an interview with German news agency dpa. It's a taboo he was determined to break, said del Monaco, even if he "risked being called disgusting."

Telling it like it is

Disavowing sentimentality seems to be fashionable right now, and not only within the typically straight-talking world of fringe theater.

In London, the expletive-riddled "Jerry Springer - The Opera" proved a run-away hit in the West-End, while producers of what turned into the musical hit of the festive season, "Mary Poppins", felt compelled to defend their decision to advise parents against bringing under-sevens to performances of what's generally seen as a Christmas favorite.

In producer Cameron Mackintosh's mature, non-mawkish version about family dysfunction -- closer to the original book by Pamela Travers than the Disney movie -- the adorable nanny is revamped as a stern disciplinarian. It may be dark, but the critics loved it.

Meanwhile in Germany, a controversial ballet choreographed by Johann Kresnik about the suicide of Hannelore Kohl (photo), wife of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, premiered in Bonn in the middle of the festive season amid angry resistance from the opposition conservatives.

Scandalous as it was to see the frail first lady in canary-yellow silk pajamas pouring herself a poison cocktail, the production was also critically acclaimed.

Not a bedtime story

Hänsel und Gretel in Erfurt Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel von Engelbert Humperdinck

Erfurt's more traditional and child-friendly production of "Hansel and Gretel" premiered in October

The warts-and-all version of "Hansel and Gretel" in Erfurt uses the same music and libretto as the saccharine version, but marks a new visual departure thanks to the set design by Peter Sykora.

"The fairytale forest is replaced by a red-light district, with high-rises, garbage dumps and begging children," del Monaco said.

Hänsel und Gretel - Theater Erfurt

Peter Umstadt (center), who also played the witch in the traditional version, is wicked in a different way in the adult production. At left is Denis Lakey (Hansel) and Susanne Serfling (Gretel) at right

"The children's mother is a whore and their father an alcoholic. The "sand-man" is a cocaine-snorting pimp who pursues Hansel (Denis Lakey) and Gretel (Susanne Serfling) with a video camera and hands them over to the wicked witch -- the modern "stranger," who could be the man down the road, the local pervert, the catholic priest," he said.

All for a good cause

But it's not just all gratuitous violence. There's a good cause in there too.

Erfurt Theater collaborated on the project with Unicef, the "Weisser Ring" help-line for victims of violent crime, the justice ministry of the state of Thuringia, where Erfurt is located, as well as police and child psychologists. A series of discussions on juvenile crime is also planned.

In an interview with the magazine Das Opernglas, del Monaco said he was deliberately setting out to shock. "You have to horrify people," he said. "I don't believe children these days are sufficiently legally protected."

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