Hawaii Opera Theatre / It began with a single performance of Madama Butterfly, half a century ago, in the McKinley High School auditorium. Since that debut, Hawaii Opera Theatre (HOT) has grown into one of the nation’s leading opera companies, and offers a full Grand Opera featuring nine main stage performances per season at the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall.
While the setting of HOT’s inception may have been modest–especially in contrast to the long, velvet curtains and rich red carpet inside the Blaisdell Concert Hall–insiders say local opera was a hit from the start.
“The initial reaction must have been one of great support and great recognition,” said Henry Akina, the general and artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theatre since 1996. “Certainly, 50 years of full and nearly full houses and community support show that opera has a concrete place here in Honolulu.”
First and foremost, the success of local opera is about musical performances infused with the character of those who live in–and share a love for–Hawaii.
“Lots of wonderful deep emotional, expression, lots of wonderful music, lots of movement and beauty onstage,” says Akina. “We place a high value on fellowship and ensemble…on the aloha spirit. That infects everything and everyone we work with, and this is a tremendous asset.”
That first performance at McKinley may have marked the beginning of HOT, but the people of Hawaii had for a century already embraced the art form. Opera began in 16th-century Italy as an exploration of Greek drama, and found its way to the Islands in the 1850s. When HOT was founded, it was as a subdivision of the Honolulu Symphony.
“The conductor of the Honolulu Symphony wanted to do opera in Honolulu,” says Akina. “He began planning how to do it as musical director of the orchestra, and invited the Canadian stage director Irving Guttman and an international cast to join him in this effort.”
Collaboration with the operatic world outside of Hawaii has been an essential component of HOT’s development. Akina, a Hawaii native who has directed opera companies in Germany, Hungary, France, China, Thailand, the U.S. mainland and Canada, said Hawaii’s remote location presents a slew of challenges for an industry that is simply not wholly sustainable on a local level.
“On the U.S. mainland and in Europe for instance, there are many more resources closer to other opera companies,” he said. “Like everything else in Hawaii, opera is dependent on communication with the outside world. I sometimes think that our future is absolutely dependant on how we create valuable relationships between Hawaii and the outside world. I would venture to say that that is only true of opera for our state.”
Despite challenges, HOT has long since found ways to thrive.
“The local opera audience has grown throughout its history,” says Karen Tiller, HOT’s executive director. “When you include these audience numbers with the capacity house of the performance schedule, a sold-out season reaches about 24,000.”
Opera o na kanaka
Honolulu’s devoted audience is not the homogeneous demographic that many assume it is.
“At a point early on in opera history, it was for the elite,” says Erik Haines, director of education and outreach at HOT. “Eventually, it became an art form of and for the middle class. You’ll find people from all walks of life attending the opera today.”
Part of that, opera scholars say, has to do with barriers to entry–like foreign language, for example–that have been removed.
“The full house at Blaisdell this afternoon was laughing and thoroughly enjoying Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro [performed in Italian],” says Lesley Wright, professor of musicology at UH-Manoa. “The excellent acting and singing of the cast [was] supported by well-chosen supertitles that translated the text.”
Others say that even if an audience can’t understand what is being said (or sung), the essence of the opera’s story still comes through.
“Music is a language,” says Haines. “[It] has the ability to communicate regardless of a person’s spoken language.”
The next 50
In celebrating its golden anniversary, HOT leaders find themselves looking ahead to the next 50 years. Akina, who was only 5 years old when HOT began, says he hopes to continue challenging audiences with new and exciting work.
“We are a professional company and I intend to make sure that the status is maintained,” he says. “I would not have become involved in opera or trained to be an opera stage director in Germany if I had not seen the work of the company in my youth, here in Honolulu.”
Today, HOT audiences can be found wearing sandals and shorts, suits and tuxes, or pearls and formal gowns. In addition to upcoming regular performances, like Wagner’s Die Walküre and Puccini’s La Bohème, HOT also presents “Opera for Everyone” night, where students have the opportunity to watch an exclusive presentation of the final, full-dress rehearsal for a discount.
“I believe opera is one of the most elaborate and exciting art forms man has created,” says Akina. “It has an almost 500-year history and is still going strong everywhere. Honolulu is no exception.”