West Haven Schools alumnus brings 2nd opera to elementary schools
West Haven Schools alumnus brings 2nd opera to elementary schools
Posted on 05/10/2016
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WEST HAVEN, May 3, 2016 — West Haven Public Schools’ fine arts critics-in-the-making are giving two thumbs up to "The Feast in the Sky," an opera performed in all six elementary schools last week.

The show was created just for West Haven Public Schools by alumnus Mark Hanke and six of his theater colleagues as a way to introduce youngsters to an art form they may not normally experience.

This is the second year in a row the district has partnered with Hanke, who went from performing with the West Haven High School Theatre Workshop as a student to becoming an accomplished New York City-based tenor who has sung at Carnegie Hall and been involved in countless chorus and opera productions.

The interactive operas created for West Haven elementary schools have incorporated student art projects and corresponded to literature being taught in West Haven classrooms. Students have enjoyed feeling like they are a part of the performances.

"I used to think opera was just people standing and singing. The shows last year and this year changed my opinion on it. I liked them a lot. I think opera is fascinating because it's so different from regular plays,” said Collin Charron, an Edith E. Mackrille Elementary School fourth-grader.

This year’s opera featured an African myth from Nigeria. The story is about a tortoise who is starving due to a famine across the land, but notices birds are well fed and about to partake in a "Great Feast in the Sky." “Tortoise” tries to convince “Parrot” to take him to the sky, where he plans to steal all of the birds’ food for himself. The opera teaches lessons about greediness, sharing, friendship, inclusiveness, and asking for help in times of need, Hanke explained.

Elementary school teachers prepared students by reading the myth in class, comparing and contrasting the myth with others in their curriculum, teaching about African and Nigerian culture, and giving an overview of opera.

Students created colorful masks in art class to wear during the shows and learned parts of the opera songs so they could sing along.

Hanke, who played the tortoise, and soprano Nicole Weigelt, who played the parrot, again wore elaborate, colorful costumes that caught the attention of students and prompted a number of inquiries during Q-and-A sessions at the end of each show.

But students were also impressed at the work Hanke and his colleagues put into the opera. The group wrote the lyrics and music, choreographed each and every move, designed and created the costumes and rehearsed over the past year. A saxophonist and percussionist accompanied the singers during the operas as well.

“I like hearing how they produce it,” said Chelliz Vazquez, a Mackrille fourth-grader. “I want to see more operas. They’re really cool. I like how they act and use their voices and wear costumes.”


For Hanke, the project is about making opera accessible and relatable to children, and using it as a unique instructional method.

“One of the objectives of doing this is to introduce everyone to different cultures and different myths and finding common themes in them that unite us all. Music and theater are so vital to one’s education and really have effects in every subject across the board, so I think this is really important, and that was my idea for bringing it to you guys,” Hanke told students at Savin Rock Community School at the end of the show.

The school system is looking to continue partnering with Hanke for additional educational activities on opera, given the success of the program and performances this year and last spring. The project and connections to classroom, art, music and library curriculums were overseen by Coordinator of Fine Arts Francine Coppola and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Anne P. Druzolowski.