From the Northwest coast of Alaska comes an artistic surprise
by Kathleen McCoy and Jamie Gonzales |
Most Alaskans wouldn't link the word opera with Unalakleet, a community of 700 located just at the mouth of its namesake river on Norton Sound.
Maybe not, until now. UAA vocal performance student and coloratura soprano Kira Eckenweiler grew up in Unalakleet. Dad Gary Eckenweiler moved there to teach school more than two decades ago and married Willa, a local Inupiaq woman. Kira is the younger of their two daughters.
"It's my passion," Kira said of her musical ambitions. "Opera is amazing. People don't realize how challenging it is. You have to memorize something that's in a different language, have to act it out. Opera singers are so talented. There are stereotypical views of opera — a fat Viking woman singing — but it's a really complex form of music, with emotion coming through."
Her interest in opera led her all the way to Italy for an opera intensive this past summer, but she hasn't lost touch with Unalakleet. In fact, last year, while home working her third summer counting fish for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Kira was joined by UAA piano professor Tim Smith for a concert in Unalakleet's Frank A. Degnan High School gym; he on the piano, she at the mic. Together they performed selections from Leonard Bernstein's Candide and Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Smith and Eckenweiler planned the performance during a school district in-service training, a rare moment when more than 300 teachers from all over the Bering Strait School District would be in Unalakleet. They wanted to show teachers what's possible for a passionate and talented Alaskan from a remote community.
But it wasn't just schoolteachers who came. The bleachers were packed, "more than even at a basketball game," Gary Eckenweiler said. People were leaning in, "engaged with the music," said Timothy Wolcott, the local music teacher who arrived from New York to encounter Kira as a high school senior. 'They were really listening."
Tears followed the recital, but not from Kira. Smith, Wolcott and Kira's parents all recounted how community members moved toward the young vocalist, wiping their eyes. "I don't think people expect to hear opera come out of a village girl's mouth," Kira said later. "I am so glad people were touched by my music."
Some of that emotion may be linked to a custom Willa Eckenweiler shared with me over the phone from Unalakleet. "We have a naming process in Inupiat culture," she said, "a way to keep a name alive in the community."
Willa's mother and an aunt chose an Inupiat name for baby Kira-Apaachuaq. The woman who bore that name, a choir singer in church, had died shortly before Kira's birth. She'd been a community leader, bringing Inupiat songs into church services, and she was also a close friend of the two older women.
"I think, especially among the older people here," said Gary, "they see Kira, and they think of her."
A rural Alaskan comfortable with subsistence fishing and even calling and shooting her own moose, Kira has grown into an artist. "I want to sing opera for the rest of my life," she said. "I want to go all around the world, singing opera."
This year, she's making those dreams a reality. Rather than return to Western Alaska for another summer working along the riverbanks, Kira instead auditioned for and was accepted to Oberlin in Italy, an intensive summer course based in Arezzo, an hour from Florence. With world — class training among international classmates, Kira returned to Alaska even more prepared for a career in opera (and with greater Italian fluency to boot).
But those Italian skills won't play into her next big gig. Kira saw her first opera, Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, in Montana when she was 19. Now, she'll share the lead female role in the world premiere of the new Inupiaq/English Aklaq & Nayak, an Alaska Native adaptation of Hansel and Gretel. The Anchorage Opera and UAA Opera Ensemble production, with an original libretto written by UAA associate professor of music Mari Hahn and Kira's mother Willa Towarak Eckenweiler, premieres this December.
It's the latest addition to a growing operatic résumé. She performed last season in Puccini's Tosca and Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Anchorage Opera and has also taken the lead roles in Mozart's Impresario and Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus. At UAA, she sang the lead in UAA's Elixir of Love and earned a secondary role in Madame Butterfly.
All this, from the little girl who would sing her way through long family canoe trips. Who won the school talent contest in fifth grade with a song from Disney's Pocahontas. Who, in high school, set her mind to winning not just regionals, but statewide competitions for her singing, including earning one of only three "command performance" slots for vocalists her senior year.
That performance program from 2011 is peppered with names from big Alaska high schools: Dimond, Lathrop, West Valley, South, Palmer and Grace Christian. Unalakleet appears only once, next to Kira's name.
"She's probably, hands down, the most gifted singer I have ever worked with," said Hahn. "She's got depth, strength, courage." Hahn acknowledged the power of supportive parents and a home community that will come out to hear her sing.
Opera is a hugely competitive field, Hahn said. She predicted Kira will spend the next few years at a larger music center, polishing her skills and preparing for a national or international career. "She has the inner strength and character to withstand all the pressures," Hahn said.
Besides, she quipped, "Kira's the only student who ever told me she needed to miss class to go hunt, then brought me back a big slab of moose for my freezer."
A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Additional reporting by Jamie Gonzalez.