I last saw “Hansel and Gretel” in an outdoor amphitheater in Rochester, N.Y.,  during a Lilac Festival so long ago that I don’t want to think about it. Now PORTopera is staging it July 29 and 31 at Merrill Auditorium in a politically oriented version, with a children’s chorus of various ethnicities, who may (at the time of writing) be in national costumes to celebrate Portland’s prominence as a refuge for the oppressed.

Artistic director Dona D. Vaughn said the production will “concentrate on the real themes of the opera, but it will retain all of the magic for which the opera is famous so that young people can still get an unforgettable opera experience from seeing it.”

Hansel and Gretel’s themes include abandonment, starvation, fear, separation, survival and reconciliation. “Like so many ‘fairy tales,’ this opera has a deceptively simple story, that when penetrated, reveals big ideas that are not only provocative, but lend themselves to the operatic stage.”

Why not? The story has been the vehicle for everything from puppet shows to pornography, and like everyone else I learned the most important facts of life — such as treat old women well — from Grimm’s fairy tales.

Mozart it isn’t, but it has some pleasant and recognizable music derived from folk songs and a story that doesn’t need supertitles, even though it is sung in German. It was the first opera broadcast live from the Met and remains among the most popular.

Engelbert Humperdinck, (1854-1921) the composer, not the British singer Arnold George Dorsey who assumed his remarkable name, moved in exalted musical circles and was an assistant to Richard Wagner.

The first performance of “Hansel and Gretel” was conducted by none other than Richard Strauss, who raved about it and admired its German-ness. The second was directed by Gustav Mahler.

Humperdinck also took some of Wagner’s ideas and ran with them. His 1897 melodrama, “The King’s Children,” is said to have been the first to use the device of sprechgesang, halfway between speaking and singing, that appealed to Arnold Schoenberg.

In addition to the 16-member chorus, children from the Portland Ballet will appear as angels in the dream sequence.

The production will be conducted by Israel Gursky, of the Washington National Opera, whom Portland audiences will recall from past fine performances.

Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, one of PORTopera’s emerging artists in 2001, will sing the role of Hansel. Gretel will be sung by Angela Mortellaro, and the Witch by Robert Brubaker, a tenor who has made a specialty of singing unusual roles. He is, incidentally, scheduled to sing Chairman Mao in John Adams’ “Nixon in China” next year at the Met.

The cast also includes baritone Weston Hurt in the role of Peter, the father. Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak will sing Gertrude, the mother.

Additionally, mezzo-soprano Rachel Hauge will play the Sandman and Emily Murdock the Dew Fairy.

Hauge and Murdock are performing in PORTopera’s Young Artist Program this summer.

For tickets call PorTix at 207-842-0800 or go to www.portix.com

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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