‘Hansel and Gretel’ is a classic German opera, often performed around the holidays. But an upcoming performance in Anchorage packs a uniquely Alaska twist. For an opera singer from Unalakleet, the performance blends a European performance with the traditional Inupiat folk lore she knew as a kid.
Kira Eckenweiler warms up her voice before opera rehearsal. A piano app on her smartphone helps her stay on key.
“So I’ll sing it to myself,” she says, tapping away at the piano keys on her phone. “And if I get a pitch wrong I’ll correct it and keep singing until I get it right.”
At 23, Kira’s already had a number of lead roles in Anchorage operas — and an upcoming performance is no exception.
Her rise in opera has been quick, especially given that Kira didn’t even hear opera until she was in high school.
But Kira says she was always a musical kid.
“We had this karaoke machine that my dad bought. And it had some Michael Jackson songs… and one of those songs ‘I had a crush onnn youuu,’ I always sang that song over and over,” she laughs.
Before you typecast Kira under whatever comes to mind when I say, “opera singer,” I assure you, she doesn’t fit that stereotype.
Kira is Alaskan through and through. This is a girl who’s walked away from the basketball court with a bloody nose, four times. She can handle a snowmachine and level a moose. And that doesn’t make her any less serious about pursuing a career on stage.
Kira spent this past summer singing opera in Italy — training alongside peers who were mostly from East Coast schools like Julliard or the Academy of Vocal Arts.
She had a little fun with them. “I told them I rode a polar bear to school and they believed me!” she laughs.
This holiday season, Kira’s northern roots and Inupiaq heritage are coming to the stage in a big way. (Polar bear not included.)
As the rest of the opera ensemble trickles into the recital hall, University of Alaska Anchorage music professor Dr. Mari Hahn leads a warm-up from her seat at the piano.
Everyone pushes air out through their lips, which causes them to flutter — as an outsider, I internally refer to this exercise as “Donald Duck lips.” Dr. Hahn says they’re more commonly called lip trills or bubbles.
Opening night is in December, and the ensemble is readying for a whole new take on an opera classic. Their performance is called “Aklaq and Nayak.” It’s an Inupiat adaptation of the German opera “Hansel and Gretel.”
Here’s a peek from the last scene:
Father and Mother are reunited with their kids, and Father sings joyfully: “Snowy owl brought us here, telling us to have no fear! They were brave, like he said, Goblin Woman nowwww is dead.”
Opera buffs will recognize the music score, but little else. Snowy Owl and Goblin Woman aren’t characters in the original opera. But they are familiar characters from Inupiat lore.
“It was really a lot of fun to research this,” Dr. Mari Hahn says.
She wrote the adaptation after consuming all kinds of Alaska Native tales and stories from across the state. Goblin Woman isn’t verbatim from any one story, but rather an amalgamation of several child-eating witch like characters she read about.
“And then I consulted with Kira Eckenweiler’s mother — Willa Towarak Eckenweiler who is an Inupiaq lady who lives up in Unalakleet and she helped me greatly with the adaptation.”
Kira’s mom helped Dr. Hahn find the right Inupiaq words for the libretto — the spoken part of the opera — and she told her about the subsistence lifestyle.
Hansel and Gretel picked strawberries in the forest. Aklaq and Nayak pick berries on the tundra.
Kira plays Nayak, or Gretel.
“Aklaq and Nayak are two kids that grew up in the village, you know?” she explains.
Unlike the original, this opera is set against the context of climate change in the north.
“The ice isn’t there like it was before to help them go seal hunting or get oogruk and stuff.”
Out on the tundra, Aklaq and Nayak get lost, but they’re kept safe by the characters Raven and Snowy Owl. In Unalakleet, Kira says ravens, especially, are seen as good omens.
“Ravens do help people in villages. They keep them safe from bears. They’ll come and warn people, you know, when they’re berry-picking.”
I listen through several songs at rehearsal… they’re beautiful. They even give me goosebumps. Kira says she knows the feeling.
“When there’s a really good singer who just captivates you, you know — somebody who just like, commands your attention, and then they just sing these tones that fill the room or have this sweet sound — that’s what just gives me the chills.”
Kira says she hopes her singing will do that to other people someday.
I tell her it already has.