Hawaii Opera Theatre's chorus for the commons
Opera has been part of island culture for more than a century. Its history in Hawaiʻi, which dates back to the 1850s, includes stories of Queen Emma singing in the chorus of Verdi’s Il Trovatore while her husband, King Kamehameha IV served as the stage manager. Queen Liliʻuokalani is said to have composed her own opera. Hawaii Opera Theatre (HOT) was established as a non-profit organization in 1960. Today, HOT is known for its vibrant and creative productions. Artistic excellence continues to be the cornerstone of standards for the company.
The words “professional” and “friendly” are go-to phrases for visiting artists when they describe their experiences collaborating with the all-volunteer chorus of the Hawaii Opera Theatre (HOT). Singers ranging in age and skill level come to each successive three-opera season well prepared to tackle a repertoire of popular classics. And their efforts are not lost on the conductors and principal vocalists who are flown in to Honolulu to create on-stage magic with them at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Some have worked with HOT multiple times, anticipating a unique island experience.
“The all-volunteer chorus is so professional and dynamic,” says chorus conductor Nola Nāhulu in HOT’s workroom in the basement of Kawaiha‘o Church. “Some members span 30 years of singing.” Nāhulu has been the theater’s stalwart conductor since 1990. Over the decades, she’s groomed kids from the affiliated youth chorus to make their transition to the adult chorus a smooth one, and she’s also worked with the kūpuna of the group to help keep their voices supple. “We’re a regional company and many of our chorus members are first-timers. Working with the principals or the conductor, we’re usually told that they’re pleasantly surprised by the level of artistry found here.”
Nāhulu says what stipend chorus members do collect “is enough to pay for their parking at the Blaisdell Center.” Besides enthusiastic amateurs, some members from the community “teach music in schools or sing professionally. Some are college-age and there are a few high school students,” says Nāhulu. “Even those who have been with us since the late 1980s have to audition. All are expected to sing at least one opera during a given season, with the possibility of doing smaller roles outside of the chorus. They also go through special coaching if any given opera requires dancing or stage fighting.”
Nāhulu has seen the chorus’ collective voice improve over the years. With the advent of the Internet, rehersal time is cut shorter. “They have to memorize, so expectations are high,” she says. “I tell them, ‘you need to be well-versed.’” She gives them online links to previous opera recordings and sheet music for their particular parts, “so they come prepared and I can concentrate on working on their artistry. They have to be versatile and be able to conform to the maestro’s wishes, plus work close with the stage director.
“This is all very much grassroots: there’s a 50-year age difference between chorus members, from highschool to early 70s. But their voices are stronger and come in with better musicianship,” she adds.
A veteran of 27 years himself, Stelio “no last name, please” agrees with Nāhulu. Born and raised in Greece, the classically trained expatriate says “my voice is more mature and stronger, although I find memorization a bit harder at times. I remember early rehearsals were bad for the long hours, going until 11 or midnight. But it’s all been worth it because of the love of music and camaraderie. It’s our life. I would go through withdrawals without the opera.”
And singing in the chorus can be a family affair: Stelio’s daughter Angeliki—who herself came up through the ranks of the Hawai‘i Youth Opera Chorus as a 5-year-old—joined her father in the adult chorus in 2016. Long time chorus veteran Sarah Lambert Connelly says her husband, Pat Connelly, has recently been bit by the chorus bug after appearing as a stage extra in a couple of productions. “Pat, who grew up listening to his mother play classical piano, has always appreciated music, but didn’t have much experience with the art form of opera,” Connelly says. “All along, I have been gently suggesting that he join the chorus, but he always said that he is a supporter of the arts, not a singer himself. But recently he mentioned it might be time for him to consider joining the chorus!”
He can expect what fellow veteran Malia Ka‘ai-Barrett calls “hardcore rehearsals. With the scores sent out ahead of time, within a week, we’re already working on staging. You have to work with the knowledge already in mind of what part you’re singing so, as performers, we have to get our act together,” she says.
If there is one constant when working in HOT, it is the overall sense of aloha. Long-lasting friendships are made and some traditions have been built over the years, including a variation on the local “tailgate” party. These “operagates” used to be held in the parking lot behind the concert hall, filled with potluck food and grilling hibachis. But it got to be a bit much, so it’s been scaled down to backstage; still, the strength of the tradition is such that visiting artists look forward to the experience.
There are also two traditions unique to the Hawai‘i experience: Before opening night of each opera, a pule, or prayer, is said, usually by cultural practitioner Aaron Mahi, to bless the production, and at the end of each opera’s run and after the curtain falls, everyone that is part of the production sings “Aloha ‘Oe” to their guests.
In 2017–18, the chorus executes beloved classics such as Bizet’s Carmen, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment in February and, in April, the challenging Russian-language Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky.
The latter was last staged by HOT in 2003, and this is only the second time the company is performing it. The libretto is difficult enough that a Russian language coach will be brought in to help chorus members. Ka‘ai-Barrett was part of that earlier chorus and she remembers that, “I struggled so mightily with it that I look forward to redeeming myself. I’ll have a better sense of pronunciation. The music of Tchaikovsky itself is very lovely—it’s not filled with funky tonalities—but Russian is such a challenge!” she says with an infectious laugh.
Hawaii Opera Theatre has given her “the opportunity to expand myself as a musician. It is an ‘ohana that includes many behind-the-scenes volunteers like the costume dressers that help us with our wigs and makeup and the craftspeople that serve us peanut butter, crackers and cheese. It’s a core community that makes the opera work and it wouldn’t survive without them.”