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Breaking The Spell: From Hansel And Gretel To Hofer And Trump

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The morning after watching Vancouver Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel , I awoke to news that Austria's far-right leader Norbert Hofer lost to left leaning liberal Alexander Van der Bellen.

I learned of the political sea change via the Facebook feed of an Iraqi refugee friend, now living in New York, who posted of the Austrian election news and wrote, did the spell break?

He was referring of course, to the world's recent sharp right turn, and perhaps a more sobering correction after the traumas of Trump and Brexit.

But I couldn't help recalling Taylor Pardell's strong portrayal of Gretel and her lines in the final scene, after the witch meets her firey demise, "Hocus pocus forest curse, let the magic now reverse!"

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Photo: Tim Matheson

After her magic incantation, all the gingerbread/zombie children, whose white hooded costumes recalled the KKK with candy accessories, come back to life and dance and sing.

The scene made me reflect on the normalization of evil, and how so many of us have wandered through recent political horror like stupefied children, dutifully towing the line and hoping not to invoke the witch's wrath.

Has the world been entranced by dangerous alt right euphemisms? As the translated libretto of Engelbert Humperdinck goes,

Hocus pocus, witches' charm!
Move not. As you fear my arm!
Rack or forward do not try,
Fixed you are by the evil eye!

Head on shoulders fixed awry!
Hocus, pocus, now comes jocus,
Children, watch the magic head.
Eyes are staring, dull as lead!

A return to reality, after so many witches promising candy with devious intent to zombified viewers of Fox News and its international equivalents, can only be a good thing. While many Trump supporters might have rewritten the libretto with the Hilary as the witch, and the Donald as a crusading Hansel (well played in the Vancouver production by Pascale Spinney), they may now be having second thoughts.

After Trump lured his hapless followers into the dark woods of the American dream, promising jobs and hope, only to fill his cabinet with the same establishment "villains" he decried during his campaign and inspire hate in the name of "greatness," perhaps his supporters are coming out from under his spell.

But narratives of good and evil are powerful, perennial and dangerous, as any Google search of "Grimm Brothers" and "anti-Semitism" will reveal. And Humperdinck was of course a protégé of Wagner.

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The late 19th century celebration of the "virtuous" German folk tradition found some ardent fans several decades later, and it's been very recently reworked by "alt-right"/ neo-Nazis.

There's a fine line between "making America great again" and throwing "witches" into ovens. But soon perhaps, Trump Inc. will do a deal with the defeated Hofer and corner the international market on gingerbread and fascist schmaltz, although I'm sure their sweets will taste rather sanctimonious and smell of sulfur.

Sadly, in a world of starving and abandoned children subsisting on breadcrumbs of hope, from Vancouver's downtown eastside a few hundred metres from the Playhouse theatre to eastern Aleppo and most of Mosul, there seem to be legions of zombified gingerbread men who rise up from the ashes of witches burned in the name of good. As my Iraqi refugee friend's second post of the day revealed, a bunch of drunk Trump supporters chanting his name cornered a Brooklyn born 18 year old Muslim woman on and east side train and tried to pull off her hijab. Not a single bystander intervened.

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Still, as I returned from the theatre with magical visions of forest fairies, animal creatures (conjured by designers Peter Balkwill and Pityu Kenders) and the sounds of sweet children's voices and excellent chamber like orchestra (conducted by Alexander Prior) in my head, I couldn't help but feel hopeful. Recalling the delightful multicultural cast, who performed next door to a Googoosh concert at the Queen E theatre, I comforted myself with gingerbread and schnapps, and decided to interpret the dark Grimm brothers fairy tale turned opera in a positive light.

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As the final act reveals:

The spell is broke and we are free,
we'll sing and we'll dance and we'll shout
for glee !

Come, children all, and form a ring,
join hands together while we sing.

Perhaps it was just the sugar and schnapps, but I went to sleep humming Humperdinck's Evening Prayer and hoping that the better angels of our nature -along with my childhood belief in the power of magic words - would prevail.

"Hocus pocus forest curse, let the magic now reverse!"