West Haven schools alum brings opera to youngsters
West Haven schools alum brings opera to youngsters
Posted on 05/14/2015
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WEST HAVEN, May 11, 2015 — West Haven Public School District third- and fourth-graders were treated last week to a special opera that aligned with their classroom lessons and was created just for them through a district partnership with an alumnus.

Opera tenor and West Haven High School alumnus Mark Hanke performed “The Adventures of Great Rabbit” with soprano Nicole Weigelt in the district’s six elementary schools in an effort to expose children to the art form and encourage discussions of the cultures and traditions represented in the piece. Hanke based the opera on a Native American myth from the Algonquin tribe, as Native American history is part of the curriculum in grades three and four.

For many students, these performances marked their first operatic experience.

“It’s amazing to be able to bring opera to kids. I wanted to make opera accessible and to get kids involved in the performing arts,” said Hanke, who attended Edith E. Mackrille Elementary School and Bailey Middle School before entering WHHS. “Though it’s sung all the way through, I included some spoken participatory parts to get the kids involved in this particular opera. Having the arts in their lives helps with learning. I couldn’t be more thankful to have gotten the chance to come back and do this.”

“The Adventures of Great Rabbit” was billed as a fun and comical opera about a rabbit with magical powers that conjures illusions to escape the pursuits of Wildcat.

The show was interactive, with students singing along to parts of songs they had rehearsed with their music teachers and responding when characters asked them questions. It also incorporated an art class assignment earlier this year, as art teachers helped students created large totem poles that served as scenery during the operas and were unique to each school. Librarians were involved as well by reading the original Native American myth with students and comparing and contrasting it to other myths being studied in class.

Hanke was dressed as a rabbit for the performance, while Weigelt was dressed as a wild cat, with their costumes having been designed by Nicole Slaven. They were accompanied by composer and musician Kento Iwasaki on an instrument called a koto and Nathalie Joachim on the flute. The opera’s musical foundation was described as a fusion of Eastern (Japanese) and Western classical music, coupled with tribal lore. Hanke and Iwasaki worked together to compose the score.

Students were mesmerized by the elaborate costumes, singing and energy of the characters, reaching out their hands for high-fives with Hanke and watching Weigelt’s every move as her wild cat character pounced around the performance space.

“I thought it was really funny. It was my first time seeing an opera. Our teacher read a story to us about it and I thought it would be cool to see the costumes and hear the music,” said Alma E. Pagels Elementary School fourth-grader Cassie Wadeka. “I want to see more operas like this.”

Students had a chance for a Q & A after each performance with the musicians, singers and Christopher Mirto, director and Yale School of Drama alumnus, and were able to examine the koto stringed instrument up close.

“I really liked the music and the costumes and how much time they put into this,” Pagels student Victoria Kettles said after hearing that the performers spent the past year planning “The Adventures of Great Rabbit.”

Schools are looking to possibly have Hanke visit again for additional educational activities on opera, given the students’ enthusiastic response to last week’s shows and newfound interest in this type of theater performance. 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.