At this time of year, dozens of larger-than-life characters make appearances on stages throughout the world, signaling the arts as an integral part of the holiday season. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," "The Nutcracker's" Clara and the infamous Scrooge come quickly to mind.

This year, the Washington National Opera begins its own annual holiday tradition, as well as a commitment to family programing, with their production of the timeless fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel" taking place at the Kennedy Center. A unique, pre-production twist on the late December performances is a free, Saturday preview of the show on the center's Millennium Stage featuring the members and alumni of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

"I think it's a fun part ... to play somebody young and exuberant," said Sarah Mesko, who performs the role of Hansel.

Engelbert Humperdinck wrote the music for "Hansel and Gretel" with the libretto by Adelheid Wette. This WNO revival is sung in English with supertitles (dialogue projected on an overhead screen) and is directed by David Gately.

Washington National Opera: Hansel and Gretel
Where: Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center; 2700 F St. NW
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Info: Free; 800-444-1324; 202-467-4600;
Note: The shows later in the month are sold out, but check with the box office for additional availablility.

It is the story of lost children, candy treats and -- as in almost all fairy tales -- an evil witch.

"We just talked this morning with David and he specifically told us he doesn't believe in playing down to kids," Mesko continued. "We just take it as honest theater and we try to act it sincerely and the kids will pick up on that."

Still the production is not without its challenges for the classically-trained singer.

"I've played Hansel before [and] luckily I knew the role," she explained. "But because we are singers, we have to breathe. The challenge here is to dance around and run around stage all night and still have the breath to sing properly.

"Our job is almost to make ourselves invisible so the kids don't see us as opera singers, but as the character in the story. I'm hopeful that they won't even think we're singing but rather [we're] doing this and that and this is happening in the story."