HAPPY ENDING— The cast of Aklaq and Nayak gather for the finale of the UAA Dept. of Music's opera, adapted from the classic fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel.

Eckenweilers give Hänsel and Gretel an operatic makeover

On Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Nome playgoers at the Mini-Convention Center were treated to a presentation by the UAA Opera Ensemble, which featured Kira Eckenweiler of Unalakleet.

The show’s title, Aklaq and Nayak, reflected the efforts of the ensemble to regionalize the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hänsel and Gretel. The performance was another in a string of outstanding ventures brought to Nome by the Nome Arts Council.

   The show’s director, Mari Hahn, is an instructor in the UAA Department of Music. She teaches opera, voice, and foreign languages. Last summer she set out to create an Alaskan interpretation of the 19th century German opera, and enlisted the help of Unalakleet resident Wila Eckenweiler, whose daughter would later play the co-lead role of Gretel. “Wila and I worked on the libretto, the words of the opera,” said Hahn. “We adapted it into the Alaskan Native version, and decided to set it up here, kind of in the wilderness, and to make it an Inupiaq family,” she said. 

   Kira Eckenweiler is a 2011 graduate of Unalakleet High School. She traces her start in the world of classical singing back to state solo and ensemble singing competitions. After a year of studying music in Bozeman, Montana, Eckenweiler returned to Alaska and entered the UAA music program as a music performance major. There she began working under Hahn.

“Mari had started the libretto, and she wanted to make it more authentic,” said Kira. “I think it’s great that we had English and Inupiaq mixed because that’s just what we do now, so my mom helped her with that.”

Saturday’s show was the first of three performances the troupe is doing on the road. “We did this in Anchorage and had six performances,” said Kira. “But none of the audiences laughed as much as this one because everybody understood the words. When Edward (the Goblin Woman) said Naku (good) I wanted to laugh so hard, but I had to stay in character.”

Hahn said she and Wila decided to have the family members in the story portrayed as living on subsistence. “We added some elements of climate change, like ‘it’s not supposed to be this warm,’ and ‘what are berries coming out his early for.’ There is a scarcity of animals and they have to go out further and further to look for the animals.”

   While the tale of Aklaq and Nayak follows the general story line of Hänsel and Gretel, there were some unique twists. Instead of being protected by a sandman and angels, as the German children were, the Alaskan boy and girl were looked after by Raven and Snowy Owl. The witch’s gingerbread house was replaced by one made of salmon, muktuk, and berries.

   Another unique ingredient of the Alaskan rendering is that Ishiguks, the mythical little people of the north, try to assail Aklaq and Nayak while they sleep on the tundra. Playing the parts of the miniature monsters were seven children from Nome. “We were the Ishiguks,” said Vivian Heers, 10, during the intermission. “We were trying to get the kids and scare them. But we did not get them because the Raven and the Snowy Owl scared us away.”

   Hahn said most of the actors in Aklaq and Nayak were students in the UAA music program. Two Anchorage community members, Allison Polowy, who played Raven, and Victoria Graham, who played Snowy Owl, had taken a singing class with Hahn last semester. Sarah Cvancara played Aklag, Don Edres had the role of Father, Hahn played Mother, and Edward Washington II was cast as the Goblin Woman.

The cast of Ishiguks included Heers, Harmony Martinson, Cassidy Martinson, Ayla Knodel, Kyle Eide, Jackson Jennetton and Orson Hoogendorn.

The Nome Arts Council had generous support from the Thomas and Cindy Massie Foundation, the Anchorage Opera, and the University of Alaska – Anchorage Department of Music.

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