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Work of the week – Hans Werner Henze: Pollicino

On 23 June the children’s opera Pollicino by Hans Werner Henze will open at Cologne Opera in a production by Saskia Kuhlmann. Soloists from Cologne Opera will be joined by pupils of the Cologne Humboldt-Gymnasium and the Cologne Rheinische, and Rainer Mühlbach will conduct.

Henze composed Pollicino between 1979 and 1980 in his adopted home of Italy, based on texts by the Italian fairy tale writer Carlo Collodi. The opera was written for the young ensemble “Concentus Politianus” who performed the world premiere in Montepulciano, Tuscany, where Henze had founded a festival for contemporary music in 1967. Henze worked closely with the children in his composition of Pollicino, tailoring it to their musical skills and incorporating their ideas. The resulting opera, performed by children for children, is intended to both teach and entertain. There are very few adult vocal parts, and in the orchestra pit children play recorders, guitars, violins and Orff instruments.

Hans Werner Henze – Pollicino: More than a fairy tale

In keeping with many fairy tales Pollicino tells a dark tale, exploring poverty and hunger as well as the difficult relationships between parents and children. Abandoned in the woods by their parents, the little hero Pollicino and his brothers find shelter in a solitary house, not realizing it belongs to an Ogre. Ultimately they manage to flee to safety with help from the animals of the forest.

Throughout the opera Henze uses instruments to represent different characters and emotions. The iridescent, floating sound of recorders illustrates the sounds of the children, the violin concertante represents the character of the grandmother, and the harmonium the untrustworthy adults that the children encounter. Though the plot is reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, Henze and his librettist Giuseppe Di Leva also incorporate elements of political theatre into the opera, developing the fairy tale into something more substantial. The music itself features several forms of aria, ensemble parts and orchestral interludes such as the march, waltz and tango. This stylistic range requires considerable understanding of musical form from the children, and learning to achieve this is at the centre of the opera.

“When children act, sing and make music, they create and listen to sounds that they will encounter time and time again in their musical lives. They accept the sounds of the music when they play it, when many adults would disregard them as odd. Children aren’t aware of the judgements adults impose on contemporary music.” – Hans Werner Henze

Following its first night, Pollicino can be heard at the Staatenhaus Köln on 25, 26, 28, 29 and 30 June.


photo: Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn