‘Aklaq and Nayak’ offers Native interpretation of fairy tale

When the opera “Hansel and Gretel” was written by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck in 1893, it was acclaimed for its reliance on folk music to tell a classic fairy tale in musical form. It’s doubtful that anyone back then pictured the opera being adapted to fit Inupiaq lore and culture.

This Alaska Native adaptation, “Aklaq and Nayak,” will be presented as a collaboration between UAA’s Opera Ensemble and the Anchorage Opera. Like its premise, the show’s audience has been broadened to include other communities, and also to demonstrate to the university that opera is a viable option for students studying music.

“Our goals with this collaboration were to demonstrate to UAA that there is sufficient interest in opera performance to consider a post-baccalaureate certificate in opera performance and to hopefully start an educational outreach program at Anchorage Opera using the cast, set and costumes to tour to area schools starting in 2016,” Reed W. Smith, the general director of Anchorage Opera, said.

While the production will premiere at UAA with matinee and evening shows this month, there are additional plans to bring the show to other schools and communities around Alaska, with touring costs — along with sets, costumes and publicity — being provided by Anchorage Opera.

The new libretto was written by Mari Hahn, an associate professor of music at UAA, and Willa Towarak Eckenweiler, who is Inupiaq and, according to Hahn, is very familiar with Inupiaq culture, language and folklore.

“The challenges that people face who still depend largely on a subsistence lifestyle, and can’t find food because of climate change, has an important part in the story,” said Hahn.

The cast for the production is comprised of singers from UAA and from the community at large, including Alaska Native performers like Kira Eckenweiler, who will play the leading role of Nayak — this opera’s interpretation of Gretel.

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While Anchorage Opera has previously offered masterclasses and workshops to UAA students, this joint effort treads new ground in UAA and Anchorage Opera’s partnership.

“With this collaboration, we are forging a wonderful relationship that serves both sides,” said Hahn. “AO [Anchorage Opera] is interested in cultivating local talent, and outreaching to local and more distant communities to expose more people to opera that is accessible. For UAA students, it gives them invaluable opportunities to receive advanced training, more high profile performing opportunities, and gain experience with the educational component of the outreach programs.”

“Aklaq and Nayak” will show in the Recital Hall at the UAA Fine Arts Building on December 11-13, at 3:00 and 7:30 p.m. each day. Tickets are $23.75, $12.50 for seniors or military, and $6.75 for UAA students.