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Vol. 7, No. 1
February/March 2004


Song of the Islands 

By J. W. Junker with Stephen Fox

In 1881, Hawaii's first opera
house was built across from
Iolani Palace. It would later
burn down.
photo: Hawaii State Archives

On February 11, 1854, in the small harbor town of Honolulu, the curtains parted at the newly opened Varieties Theater on King Street. The music began and actors stepped forward to offer something new to Hawaii: an opera.

Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment was on the bill—a light-hearted tale of love among the aristocrats that could not have seemed too alien in a town with its own royal court full of romances and intrigues. British actress Emma Waller sang the lead, though the specifics of her performance are lost to history. She may have sung beautifully, on a par with some of opera’s greatest stars, from Nellie Melba to Luciano Pavarotti, who have graced Island stages. Or she may have been awful—like the alleged soprano of whom a local critic wrote in the 1880s: "Her singing ... came as near murder as singing can."

In any case, the operatic style Waller brought to Honolulu took root. Seven years later, King Kamehameha IV was working as the stage manager on a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore; Queen Emma was singing in the chorus. In the 1880s, two royal princesses, Miriam Likelike and Bernice Pauahi Bishop, sang onstage in Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.

"Where else but in Hawaii," asks retired University of Hawaii music professor Dale Hall, "would one have found real princesses performing as chorus girls in an operetta?"

Today, a century and a half after that auspicious night at the Varieties Theater, opera continues to flourish in the Islands. It can be found in the basement of Kawaiahao Church, where every week the keiki of Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus rehearse; at Kamehameha Schools, which has produced two world-renowned opera stars; and at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, where on January 30th Hawaii Opera Theatre opens its 2004 season.

HOT staged a Polynesian-style
performance of
The Magic Flute
n the 1980s.
photo: Wayne Levin

HOT’s new season begins with Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic masterpiece Otello. Performers will still come from abroad and from the Islands, and the audience will be mixed in the best local tradition: There will be no royal box, but today’s bluebloods will be there, mingling easily with blue jean-clad students, blue-haired seniors and all of the other colorful constituents who turn out to enjoy a richly complex art form that can lay claim to a Hawaiian lineage older than that of even the ukulele and the steel guitar.

"The Islands engender an emotional awareness in people and a lot of that is carried through music," says Henry Akina, the urbane, soft-spoken director of Hawaii Opera Theatre. "We have a very rich musical life here, and a very sensitive community. So opera has a lot of appeal."

In a culture where the voice has always been the primary musical instrument, opera reinforces deeply Hawaiian traditions even as it reflects Hawaii’s connection to a global phenomenon. "In Hawaiian music, the most important aspect is the mele [text]," says Aaron Mahi, the dynamic director of the Royal Hawaiian Band and a frequent contributor to the local opera scene. "The mythology of Hawaii lends itself to storytelling, and the folklore is full of deep, dramatic settings," Mahi says. "That’s very much a part of opera."

Opera traces its origins to Italy, circa 1600, when master showman Claudio Monteverdi began staging lavish musical extravaganzas. The shows caught on—by the mid-seventeenth century, Venice alone supported sixteen opera houses. Opera spread through Europe and then across the globe: New Orleans opened the first opera house in North America in 1791, and Sydney, now home to the world’s most iconic opera house, began hosting performances as early as 1830.