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Sensory-Friendly 'Hansel' a Success

Cast members Daryl Freedman (Mother), Ariana Wehr (Gretel), and
Aleksandra Romano (Hansel) with Master Ionarts (photo by CTD)
From a critic's point of view, I had reservations about Washington National Opera's most recent revival of their holiday production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. At the same time, also noted in my review, enough of this gorgeous score's charm comes through, even in the reduced orchestration, for most listeners to enjoy. Miss Ionarts certainly did on opening night, and even Master Ionarts, who has not been to a musical performance in a few years, had the chance to appreciate it on Saturday afternoon.

Although Master Ionarts went to many kids concerts with me when he was small, including to the first WNO Hansel in 2007, in recent years he has balked at going to performances in theaters. Diagnosed on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, he has pronounced sensitivity to auditory and visual stimuli. When WNO announced that they were going to host their first-ever sensory-friendly performance on Saturday afternoon, Master Ionarts agreed to give it a try. We can report that both the musicians in the pit and the singers made an effort to lower the volume of the music, with only a few moments that bothered sensitive ears. The lights in the theater were kept on but dimmed, so that kids could move around or leave the theater as they needed. The only slight misstep was to keep the flashing lights used for the explosion of the witch's oven: although the sound of the explosion was dampened, the light flash was too much for many of the kids.

Just knowing that this was a performance intended for kids like him put Master Ionarts at ease. As the show began, he smiled as he heard kids shifting in their seats and asking questions loudly, sometimes getting up from their seats and moving around the theater, knowing that all of this was OK during this performance. He himself asked me several questions about the story and the characters, relating it to his favorite topics in math and science, including noting that given the shape of the earth in relation to the sun, the Sandman and the Dew Fairy would always have to be on opposite sides of the planet. During most of the second half, one young girl paced nervously at the edge of the orchestra pit, moving her hand back and forth in the repetitive behavior known as "stimming." All of the performers, and most of the audience members, took all of this in stride.

Master Ionarts insisted that we stay after the performance for the chance to meet some of the performers. He especially wanted to ask Keriann Otaño, who kept her Witch's magnificent cackling to a minimum, what it was like to play such an evil person, but since she could not make an appearance he was happy to speak to the other cast members. Best of all, near the end of the performance, he put his hand on my arm and said he was glad that he came to see the opera because he had "forgotten how enjoyable this was." To see him back in a theater was the best early Christmas gift this father could have received, so the Ionarts family thanks the WNO family for being open to giving this special performance. It meant a lot to many kids and their parents.

The Kennedy Center has announced two more sensory-friendly performances this season. Master Ionarts and I will try to make it to the National Symphony Orchestra concert in April.

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