The living libretto
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.
As part of its mission, Hawaii Opera Theatre (HOT) seeks to instill within Hawai‘i’s public sphere an appreciation for a rich and multidimensional art form that too often is believed inaccessible to the average art enthusiast. Arts outreach and education programs usually take on one of two roles: either they are intended to reach as many people as possible with an overview of information, or they are intended to reach a smaller group within the community, but go into more depth with that group. With 70+ performances each year in around 60 different venues across O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Maui and Hawai‘i Island, HOT’s Opera Express program is of the first variety.
Specifically, the program is geared toward elementary and middle school students—to get kids interested in the beauty of the music, the power of the singing, the humanity of the stories and the wonderful spectacle of set and costume that come together to make opera special.
“Opera Express is a great way for us to get out there and share opera with as many kids as possible,” says HOT Executive Director Simon Crookall. “We estimate there are between 150–200 children at each performance. We hope the performances are entertaining, educational and inspiring. Those are our three goals with the program.”
Each year, HOT’s education team, led by Education Director Erik Haines, chooses an opera—the 2016/17 selection is Hansel and Gretel, written in 1893 by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck—and then cuts the show down to approximately 35 minutes, making the experience suitable and enjoyable for children. The operas, always sung in English, are performed directly at schools, as well as in community centers including libraries and local theaters. For the last few years, HOT has also included a radio broadcast performance through Hawai‘i Public Radio.
Cutting down an opera to a cohesive 35-minute performance takes a lot of skill. In 2015/16, Opera Express performed Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791), which is a three-hour opera with a very complicated plot. A 35-minute rendition is a completely different experience, but one that still serves to satisfy the program’s goals. The team selects the best-known songs from the opera and cuts around those songs—adapting and simplifying the words—until they’ve come to a 35-minute libretto (the “script” for an opera).
The performances usually feature a small cast of around three performers who almost always come out of the growing stable of young talent within the Orvis Studio—HOT’s training program for up-and-coming opera singers. Each performer will take on multiple roles within the production, allowing them a wider range of stage experiences than they would normally get.
“There’s a double benefit with Opera Express, because it also gives these fledgling artists an opportunity to perform,” says Crookall. “And there’s nothing better than honing your skills in front of 15,000 elementary school kids—because they are merciless.”
The program involves participation as well. Kids have an opportunity to go on stage and act as extras in the performance. The team also teaches the children at least one song from the show ahead of time, so that they can sing along as a chorus during the performance. After the show, the performers stick around for a Q+A session with the kids. For the educational team, it’s important that the kids get more out of the program than just watching a performance.
“Before we go to a school we send a teacher’s pack, which has history about the opera and lesson plans for using the opera in the classroom,” says Crookall. “A lot of the schools we visit don’t have any sort of musical educational component, so giving the them some building blocks; some opportunities to learn a song and have some exposure to music is so important.
“Opera is a very old art form, but it came to a peak in the 19th century and early 20th century through Italian opera and great masters like Verdi and Puccini, and they are still the fundamental pillars of our repertoire,” explains Crookall. “And while it’s important that we honor them and perform their work to our highest ability, opera didn’t finish with them; it didn’t die with Verdi and Puccini. It grew into a varied and innovative and exciting art form. Part of our job as an opera company is to also introduce audiences—particularly here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—to new opera and new experiences.”
Through its selection of works, HOT demonstrates that opera is a living art form that continues to be generated and reinterpreted anew by successive generations of composers into the 21st century. Through programs like Opera Express, HOT also proves that opera can go beyond the mainstage to smaller, more intimate settings where it can connect modern audiences with contemporary issues, providing a relevance that even the very young can appreciate and learn from.
In 2017/18, HOT will be performing As One, an opera written by a composer named Laura Kaminsky. Based on a true story about a young male who transitions to female, the opera focuses on the psychological and emotional journey of “Hannah Before” as she becomes “Hannah After.” The mere fact that female composers are becoming more prominent in the opera world signifies the art form’s vitality and, in selecting a story that deals with a very real and present issue in our society—the challenges and stigmas faced by transgender people in America, HOT is giving voice to different types of stories that directly connect with important issues that kids are dealing with today. Designed to be economical, the opera is written for a string quartet and two singers, breaking the traditional mainstage mold that most people think of as being “opera.”
“One of the cool things about small-scale operas like As One and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, which we performed during March 2017, is that we can take them on the road to the neighbor islands too,” Crookall adds. “It’s very important for us to use the different scales and types of opera that are emerging, and the different logistical opportunities they present, to take the opera to communities that don’t typically get to experience the art form. That’s how opera will continue to thrive long into the future.”