Librettist Mark Campbell #HOTSpeaks

#HOTSpeaks: Q&A With As One Co-Librettist Mark Campbell

An opera all starts with a story. And that story all starts with a libretto — an opera’s text. One person who has made this specific form of story-telling his career is Pulitzer Prize award-winning librettist Mark Campbell.

Mark Campbell’s work is at the forefront of the current contemporary opera scene in America. He’s also one of the co-librettists of HOT’s next production As One, opening this weekend on January 11, 2018. Together with composer Laura Kaminsky and filmmaker Kimberly Reed, Mark Campbell co-created the opera, which depicts with empathy and humor the journey of a transgender person. HOT’s production of the 75-minute chamber opera is the 13th production of the work since it premiered in 2014, making it one of the most produced new operas in recent history.

In this month’s #HOTSpeaks, we hear the unique perspective of what it’s like to be, as Mark Campbell puts it, the ‘guardian of the story.’

What made you decide to become a librettist?

I really love the combination of music and text and the power that it can give to a story. It can produce a more profound and urgent experience with an audience and helps them empathize with characters,  stories and situations in a way plain text cannot. I got into writing librettos mostly because I love music.

Many decades ago, I was an actor — and not a very good one. A composer I knew was writing a musical about the last days of the Romanovs that had an imminent workshop on the horizon and asked me to contribute some lyrics.  I discovered I really loved it. Following that, I wrote a few musicals and won a couple of prestigious awards in musical theater. Steve Sondheim honored me the first Kleban Foundation Award for Lyrics, which to this day remains the only award for lyricists and librettists in musical theater. But my first real foray into opera came in 2001, when John Musto asked me to create an opera with him for Wolf Trap Opera. The resultant Volpone, adapted from Ben Jonson’s play, was a big hit. And I felt I had found my artistic home.

What is it like being a librettist in the 21st century?

It’s incredible. A lot of people are identifying our current scene in opera as “The Golden Age of American Opera.” I don’t know if that’s really true, and we’ll probably only know that decades from now, but it’s a terrific time to be a librettist, and I’m especially pleased how my colleagues and I are raising the profile of libretto-writing with operas that are more story-centric. Opera isn’t just about hitting high notes any more, or enduring some pretty silly librettos.

It’s about giving the audience a story that they are entertained by, that they can relate to, and even see mirrored in their own lives. And I think As One fits into that description very nicely.

What kind of skills do you need to become a librettist?

A librettist today needs to be a good storyteller, a mutable collaborator, a fine craftsman and understand almost intuitively how words work with music. I feel very fortunate in that I studied the lyricist’s craft rigorously for many years, which has served me well in writing opera librettos. In fact, As One can be characterized as a theatrical song cycle more than as a traditional song cycle.

Has working as an actor also influenced the way you write librettos?

Yes, in that I aim to create characters and roles for performers that are complete and specific, with traditional theatrical elements like arcs and motivations. I feel that a lot of bad opera happens these days because librettists create archetypes, not defined characters.

While writing a libretto, what kind of relationship do you try to maintain with the composer?

I’ve worked with more than 35 composers in my career and written the librettos for 25 operas. I’ve worked a lot with “first-timers” and with three Pulitzer Prize-winning composers. Every single composer and every single experience has been different—even with composers whom I’ve collaborated more than once. Some composers will set 95% of the first draft of the libretto I give them, others 25%. But every time I collaborate with composers, I know that part of my job is making sure that I give them a story and text that inspires them to composer their best music.

One thing a lot of people don’t know is that the libretto always comes first. Many people still have the silly notion that the composer writes the music and the libretto merely comes in a fills in some words. My first drafts of librettos are rigorously structured and always work within the format of identifying those traditional operatic moments, like arias and ensembles.  Why work in opera if you don’t take advantage of the form?

What themes are you most interested in drawing out in your librettos?

I had six premieres in 2017. One was a sophisticated 1930s comic opera called Dinner at Eight. One was about the commissioning of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, with the theme of making art. Another was an opera about the life of Steve Jobs. And the other two were about serial killers… So I can’t seem to identify a consistent theme —nor can anyone else. But I will say that I am a fan of Hitchcock and love stories with suspense, surprise, and distinctly theatrical elements.

When people ask me what stories make a good opera, I always answer, rather glibly, ‘stories that sing.’ Opera is a musical art form. If the story is better spoken, then let it be spoken.

What was it like writing about a transgender protagonist in As One?

It was one of the most gratifying experiences in my career, mostly because of my collaboration with Kimberly Reed. Neither Kim nor composer Laura Kaminsky had written an opera before and didn’t really understand at the time that an opera springs from the story. After meeting them, I went home and sketched a story in three parts in which a transgender person becomes her authentic self — based very loosely on some of Kim’s experiences. I asked Kim to write the libretto with me, because the story would be inauthentic if I wrote it alone. But in working with Kim, I also discovered what a fantastic storyteller she is. So the libretto wasn’t just about a message, but a real person.

How have people reacted to the opera and its story?

Wherever we play, Laura, Kim and I make sure that we connect with the LGBTQ+ community, and specifically, the transgender community. When Kim and I created the story of As One and the story of its protagonist, Hannah, we decided early on that it must be told with humor and in such a way that the audience can see themselves in her arc of discovery.  I really think that the universality at the core of the story has been one factor that has greatly contributed to the opera’s success. Another is the ease in which it can be performed. There are no castles or choruses to contend with, just two performers playing one role and the simplest of production values.

Over the past few years, is there any one moment that has been most fulfilling in working with the team of creators for As One or in seeing it produced?

Seattle Opera invited transgender youth from age eight to 18 to a dress rehearsal performance of As One. Many came with guardians, because many of these young people had been tragically kicked out of their homes by their parents. Following the performance, Laura and I had the honor of speaking to them about the opera and it was gratifying to hear them tell us how much they appreciated that we had captured their story. Also, about a month ago, Des Moines Metro Opera had five transgender people participate in a post-performance panel. For a number of audience members in attendance that night, it was their first time seeing or meeting a transgender person. I hope many people who see As One realize that the differences between their journeys as human beings and Hannah’s are very similar.  And that this opera merely raises visibility.

What are your plans for the future? Any new works in progress?

Kim, Laura and I are working together again on an opera called Today It Rains, which is being produced by San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and American Opera Projects. It’s an opera imagined from a real event in the life of Georgia O’Keeffe—when she boarded a train in New York in 1929 and arrived in Santa Fe a few days later, transformed.

I also have an oratorio premiering at Carnegie Hall in May, with music by Paul Moravec, who I wrote The Shining with. The work is based on the writings of William Still, conductor for the Underground Railroad. Called Sanctuary Road, it will be performed by the Oratorio Society of New York.

Additionally, I’m creating another work with Paola Prestini for Minnesota Opera based on the young adult novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. And another opera I wrote with Kevin Puts and Elizabeth Cree —Silent Night andhas several productions this year. Lastly, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which was the most successful opera in Santa Fe Opera’s history, is going to San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Indiana University, and probably many more companies. There’s a lot going on, but not as many premieres as last year. And I’m frankly a little grateful for that!


Audrey Luna at HOT

#HOTSpeaks: Hawaii’s Opera Brings Audrey Luna Home

Audrey Luna at Hawaii Opera Theatre

Photo by Fay Fox

Hawaii’s own Soprano Audrey Luna raised a lot of eyebrows last month when an archivist reported that she had unknowingly broken the record for the highest note sung on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage during Thomas Adès’ new opera The Exterminating Angel.

The note, an A above high C, is written into the opera’s score, so to her she was just doing her job. But to everyone else — from The New York Times to Seth Meyers — the feat was worth sharing. Now, after the whirlwind of all that publicity, she’s back in Hawaii. In February, Audrey will star as HOT’s Marie in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment. And she couldn’t be happier to be back.

“This is where I want to live forever,” she said. “I love Hawaii. From the first time I arrived here, I knew I wanted to make it my home.”

Audrey’s most recent flight over the Pacific followed some of the busiest years of her professional life. But when she first landed on Oahu about ten years ago, her career was just taking off. Fresh out of school and looking for a job, Audrey landed the lead female role in HOT’s 2008 production of Romeo & Juliet.

“I never wanted to leave after that,” she said. “So I made it happen.”

For the next two consecutive seasons, Audrey returned to HOT.  After her third role as Blondchen in The Abduction from the Seraglio, she began to make to move to Oahu.

Her role as Leticia in The Exterminating Angel took her around the world, including theatres in London and Salzburg. It’s been great for her career, she said, but she is looking forward to her upcoming season singing standard repertoire, including her role as Marie with HOT.

“For the last five years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of contemporary opera — most with very serious and tragic plots,” she said. “I’m really glad to break out of that and do this comedic role. My voice missed singing Bel canto.”

This month, Audrey has also begun teaching voice lessons at HOT. Some of her students include singers from the Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio.

“My schedule hasn’t allowed me to teach as much as I want to, so I’m glad that I’m starting that back up again,” Audrey said.

Before singing with HOT in February, Audrey is enjoying her downtime. Aside from teaching voice lessons, she will be spending time with her family and preparing for future roles.

“And laying on the beach,” she said with a laugh.

Volunteer for Hawaii Opera Theatre

#HOTSpeaks: Former HOT Staffer Gives Back

Each year on #GivingTuesday, people take time out of their day to give back to nonprofits like HOT. Some give monetary donations – large and small – which allow nonprofits continue to cover their operating budget. Others give expertise, food or clothing, or simple acts of kindness. And at HOT, more than 500 local arts supporters give their time.

One of those volunteers is former HOT staffer Danielle Wood.

When I left HOT, I said I would volunteer and no one believed me. But I stuck to my word!” Danielle, who is now Sales Manager for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, said. “I volunteer for HOT because I love live music and I love theater. I like the HOT mission, I like the staff, and I like being able to support the arts in some way.”

HOT volunteers help with make-up, wigs, costumes, special events, note taking, and even hosting visiting opera stars during productions. Outside of productions, volunteers assist HOT with special events like the Opera Ball, Act II Fashion Resale and HPR Pledge Drive. Danielle has volunteered at every mainstage HOT opera production since 2013. Her favorite time to volunteer is opening night.

“I like when I can tell that someone is apprehensive about their first opera, especially if they’re younger,” she said.  “Then they come talk to me at intermission, and they’re getting into it, and I’m just like, ‘I told you it would be interesting!’ I like seeing that ‘I get it now’ moment and being able to connect with people that way.”

When researchers at the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness in a large group of American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier and healthier they were. Volunteering also comes with a sense of belonging to a community, which is especially true within the HOT ohana.

“The HOT Chorus is like a family,” Angeliki Scordilis, a volunteer HOT chorister, said in an interview for a #HOTSpeaks chorus feature in August. “All the people, they’re like my aunties and uncles.”

Seeing an opera is a moving experience for many, but being a part of an opera can be life-changing. Danielle’s first experience volunteering took her backstage, where she set up an after party for the cast. She found it magical that she could peek past the velvet curtains and see glimpses of the production from a new angle.

“If you’re someone who’s new to opera, try volunteering,” Danielle said. “You get to see a show for free, you meet so many nice people, and you get to break down the barrier of what people think opera is.”


Opera History in Hawaii

#HOTSpeaks: Opera’s Rich Local History

When you think of Hawaiian historic and cultural activities, what do you picture? ‘Iolani Palace? Bishop Museum? A lūʻau?

How about opera?

A rich history of opera in Hawaii dates back to the 1800s. Two of this HOT Opera Season’s productions have their local roots in the 19th Century. Bizet’s Carmen, which opens the season this month, was staged locally in 1904. And Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, opening in February, was the first known operatic performance in Hawaii in 1854.

Former UH Musicologist Dale E. Hall.

Former University of Hawai’i Professor Dale E. Hall wrote extensively on the local history of opera and classical music. The extent to which the art form was present in local culture in the 19th Century surprised him, he said. He chronicled the early history in the 31st Edition of the Hawaiian Journal of History.

“I decided to study the history of opera in Hawaii because it had not yet been studied in any detail. It was ripe for contribution,” Professor hall said. “I became very interested in the history of opera in Hawaii, and I enjoyed learning more about it.”

Isolation may have been the reason that opera didn’t come to Hawaii before 1854, Professor Hall said. But during the 19th Century, Honolulu audiences saw about 15 full operas and 24 operettas, along with several incomplete works. Local audiences saw many of the same operas that Mainland and European audiences had become accustomed to. Most of the operas between 1854 and 1900 were by nineteenth-century Italian composers, especially Donizetti and Verdi. In 1880, local audiences saw a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which created interest in lighter forms and a greater variety of composers. 

Annis Montague as Carmen in a local production staged in 1904.

Though European and Mainland travelers brought opera to the islands, Hawaiian Royalty were enthusiastic supporters. Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V, Queen Lili’uokalani, Bernice Pauahi Bishop and others had a great appreciation for Western music. This translated not only into financial support for the art, but also participation in various productions. Queen Emma, for instance, sang in the chorus of an 1861 presentation of scenes from Il Trovatore, with King Liholiho acting as stage manager for the production. Additionally, Princess Likelike and Bernice Pauahi Bishop sang in an opera chorus in 1881. Along with Hawaiian Royalty, Prussian bandmaster Henry Berger and Hawaii-born singer Annis Montague were key figures who built local support for opera.

“Opera had always been an entertainment for the cultural elite, and such an elite existed in 19th century Hawaii,” Professor Hall said. “These people demanded a high performance standard in Honolulu.”

Throughout the century, visiting professional troupes often utilized local theaters and local choruses to put on their productions – much like HOT does today. The first local opera theater, the New Music Hall, opened in 1879 across from the ‘Iolani Palace on King Street. After the building burned in 1895, supporters restored it and renamed it the Honolulu Opera House. According to the Star Advertiser archives, its first performance in 1896 featured Hawaii-born Annis Montague, who had trained in Europe and had performed major operatic roles in New York City. The state demolished the Honolulu Opera House in 1917 to make way for the federal building. Hawaii audiences rarely saw live opera after that, until the establishment of HOT in 1960.

“HOT carries on the tradition of opera in Hawaii and always has,” Professor Hall said. “With HOT, we get an opera season each year. That’s a wonderful thing for Hawaii.”

These days, opera production in Hawaii is much different. Within the last 50 years, HOT introduced English supertitles, making it possible for even more people to attend and enjoy its productions. And the Blaisdell Concert Hall, where HOT presents most of its grand opera productions, seats about twice as many as the venue’s predecessors. Additionally, compared to early Hawaiian opera theaters, HOT has more stage space at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, a larger chorus, a full-scale education and outreach program, and a wider reach than ever before. But what hasn’t changed is the local audience’s support for the art form.

To learn more about opera history from local expert and musicologist Dr. Lynne Johnson, join us for the Opera Preview lecture before each HOT opera. And attend a HOT production to see the result of more than 100 years of history in the opera hub of the Pacific.

#HOTSpeaks: The HOT Chorus, Continued

Though they are often in the backdrop of a production, the Hawaii Opera Theatre Chorus is at the forefront of what makes HOT’s productions world-class. Time and time again, visiting artists are impressed with the dedication, the diversity, and the deep bonds that make up the local, volunteer-based chorus. In this month’s and last month’s #HOTSpeaks, we share their stories. 

Oaklea Rowe: Soprano

Oaklea Rowe joined the HOT Chorus and Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio earlier this year. Her first opera as a chorister with HOT was last season’s production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. But before the production, she was no stranger to opera. For nearly a decade, Oaklea lived in New York and sang opera professionally – even touring to companies in South America and Italy. But before moving to Hawaii, she stopped singing for a few years.

“I had stopped singing, because I just got burnt out or something. Then I heard about the studio,” Oaklea, 39, said. “I didn’t know much about it, but I felt like it was something I wanted to be involved in.”

Since then, Oaklea said she’s made a couple of really good friends in the chorus and studio. Along with music, she also loves fashion. When she’s not singing, she’s working at a boutique in Honolulu. Bizet’s Carmen will be Oaklea’s next production with HOT, and she said she’s excited for it.

“It’s about making music together and making the production the best it can be,” she said.

David Del Rocco: Baritone

David Del Rocco still vividly remembers his first opera with the HOT Chorus, although it was 12 years ago. He had always been a singer, but he never imagined he’d be singing in an opera chorus. It wasn’t until a couple of David’s friends from his church choir auditioned for the chorus that he considered trying out himself.

“I thought, ‘Well, if they can do it, I can do it!’” He said. “I realized that, you know, regular people can do this, too. You have to be a good singer, but, you don’t have to be a full-on opera singer to be in the chorus.”

Since then, David has been a part of many operas, from Puccini’s Turandot to Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. The upcoming production of Bizet’s Carmen will be his second time performing in the opera as a chorister. The opera has brought David several opportunities and friends, he said, but he has also brought something new and special to the opera. Outside of the chorus, David teaches Hawaiian Studies and dances hula. A few years ago, he decided to teach the opera singers in that production’s principle roles to dance hula after the show, alongside other choristers who play Hawaiian music. Now it’s a tradition.

“The vast majority of the principles who come over from elsewhere are so down to earth and so willing to party and learn new stuff,” David said. “And the chorus is great for that.”

Larry Whitson: Bass

Larry Whitson wanted to be in the chorus as soon as he knew it existed. But he never believed he could really do it. Classical music had been his passion since childhood, and singing in an opera was a dream of his long before he joined the chorus 12 years ago.

“When I read that the chorus was a volunteer chorus and I could do it, I just knew right away that I wanted to do it,” Larry said. “The first time I didn’t get in. But the next time I did. The biggest excitement for me was the first time I stood on that stage in the Blaisdell and looked out over that grand, empty concert hall and realized I was going to be able to perform there.”

Larry has also been a part of several HOT productions in the chorus, including Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah and, most recently, the 2017 production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. The next time he will perform onstage with HOT will be for this season’s February production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in April.

“Each year – not even just the first time – every time I get up on that stage, it’s just a magnificent thing,” he said.

Diane Koshi: Mezzo

Diane Koshi doesn’t entirely share Larry’s enthusiasm for opera, but she does have a love for music and music education. Diane worked with the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus for 20 years and taught music with a number of other organizations before retiring. Now she directs the music department at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.

“I sing in the opera because I teach,” Diane said. “I think my students need to see that their director is involved and can do what she’s asking them to do. I’ve never fallen for opera, but I appreciate it as an art form because it encompasses all the arts.”

Despite not having fallen for opera, Diane has been in the HOT chorus for almost 25 years. Her upcoming performance with the choir in Bizet’s Carmen will be her fourth time singing the opera’s music. A few of the HOT productions that she especially enjoyed being a part of were Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. Even as a seasoned music educator, Diane said she still learns new things in the chorus.

“What I enjoy most about working in the opera is the opportunity to hear different musical ideas from the maestro,” she said. “It’s a different philosophy. They share different techniques than what we usually hear.”

Bonnie Chock Burke: Alto

Surprisingly, another chorister has been part of the chorus even longer than Diane. Bonnie Chock Burke joined the HOT Chorus in 1992. And she has been a volunteer with HOT even longer – since the late 1970s. She’s worked in the box office, she’s been assistant stage director, she’s worked with costumes, she’s picked artists up from the airport, and more. And she doesn’t even currently live on Oahu. Bonnie has flown in from the Big Island for each of the many productions she’s been a part of.

“Some people think I’m crazy. They’ll say, ‘Why do you do it?’” Bonnie said. “And I say, ‘Every time there’s a rehearsal and an opera, there I am with my $500 seat.’ I can see the singers spitting. It’s worth it. Being backstage, you get to hear these professionals sing and practice. It’s just incredible to me to have that opportunity for free.”

On the Big Island, Bonnie enjoys hiking and bird-watching. But she’ll soon be moving back to Oahu, and she said she plans to be in all three of this year’s choral productions with HOT.

“All the people who come to perform for HOT say it’s incredible to see all these volunteers in such huge numbers,” Bonnie said. “I’m so proud. I know without all the volunteers we would never have opera in Hawaii.”


Hawaii Opera Theatre Chorus

#HOTSpeaks: The HOT Chorus

Though they are often in the backdrop of a production, the Hawaii Opera Theatre Chorus is at the forefront of what makes HOT’s productions world-class. Time and time again, visiting artists are impressed with the dedication, the diversity, and the deep bonds that make up the local, volunteer-based chorus. In this month’s #HOTSpeaks, we share their stories. 

Marcia Wright: Mezzo

Chorister Marcia Wright has been singing for and working with the HOT Chorus for more than 15 years. The first HOT production she sang in was Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. Since then, she has sung in about a dozen other productions, including Puccini’s Tosca, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Verdi’s Aida. When asked what the HOT Chorus means to her, she answered, “singing with people of excellence.”

“I remember my very first rehearsal at Kawaiahao Chuch. We opened the book and we launched right in, which is very different from any church choir I’d ever been in. And the sound was so glorious that I burst into tears just sitting in the middle of all those incredible voices and kind of wondering what I was doing there. It really just opened up my world and my social life.”

Marcia is retired, and while she’s not working with HOT on a production, she spends a lot of time with her church in Kaneohe. It was at the church where HOT’s Head of Music Beebe Freitas had originally recommended Marcia for the HOT choir. Though the most recent production she sang in was four years ago, Marcia remains active with HOT in the wardrobe department.

“I always look forward to the opera season rolling around,” Marcia said. “I enjoy encouraging a number of people I know through church.”

Falefia Jr. Brandon Fuamatu: Baritone

Falefia Jr. Brandon Fuamatu, 24, hadn’t discovered opera until he began studying music at UH Manoa. But once he found it, he came in swinging – literally. During Brandon’s first production with HOT – Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman – he sang while swinging from a rope. The experience, along with singing for HOT’S Orvis Opera Studio, helped influence Brandon’s decision to pursue opera as a career.

“I think the HOT Chorus is such a great example of what Hawaii has to offer to the arts, because the chorus is in itself a melting pot within Hawaii of different people who come together for music and for the love of opera,” Brandon said. “You always hear people saying, ‘There’s no chorus like our chorus.’ They’re so amazed by how diverse our chorus is ethnically and culturally, and even with our backgrounds. It’s a volunteer chorus, so I’ve sang along with lawyers, teachers – people with all kinds of different professions and backgrounds.”

Brandon recently moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he will be continuing his pursuit of music study at Westminster Choir College. But the HOT Chorus will always have a special place in his heart, he said.

“It’s never going to be the same singing with any other chorus,” he said. “There’s such a specific way we treat each other and respect each other. It’s more of a family than it is a chorus.”

But that’s not all Brandon will miss.

“Our cookouts are pretty world famous for all of the singers who come to Hawaii from the mainland. We don’t fool around with food here in Hawaii,” he said.

Jaime Craycroft: Soprano

Jaime Craycroft also didn’t discover opera until college. Growing up in the North Shore, Jaime said she was removed from the opera scene HOT had created in Honolulu. But when her professors shared opera with her in college, she found it came natural to her. Her first opera with HOT was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in 2014. Since then, she has sung with the chorus in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and, most recently, in last season’s production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. The chorus, for Jaime, has brought many opportunities in her career.

“What I really appreciate with the HOT chorus is the professionalism,” said Jaime, 38. “Your first rehearsal you need to have everything learned already. We don‘t spend much time correcting notes or language, and I appreciate that. I am thankful for being able to be myself vocally and being able to be with such fun and vocal people. Everyone there is a lot of fun.”

When Jaime isn’t singing with the choir or with the HOT Orvis Opera Studio, she enjoys Flamenco dancing and spending time with her husband and two daughters. She recently graduated from UH Manoa and plans to teach music and generate her own choir for youth in Wailua.

“I want to inspire and motivate other mothers and students to continue to follow their aspirations to sing on that glorious stage,” she said.

Angeliki Scordilis: Soprano

At 17 years old, Angeliki Scordilis is the youngest member of the HOT chorus, but her entire life has been surrounded with opera. She was only 6 months old when her father brought her to see a HOT production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The first opera Angeliki remembers listening to and enjoying, however, was a Metropolitan Opera recording of Mozart’s The Magic Flute when she was about 5 years old. Her combined experience in the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus, which she joined at 4 years old, and the HOT Chorus have brought her onstage for quite a few productions, including Pagliacci’s Carmina Burana, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and, most recently, Puccini’s La Boheme – her favorite opera.

“It’s a little strange being the youngest member of the adult chorus, because I grew up with everyone,” she said. “And so all the people, they’re like my aunties and uncles. And now instead of watching them, I’m singing with them. The HOT Chorus is like a family. Being able to sing with them– it’s just, like, a very powerful experience.”

When she’s not singing opera, Angeliki is often studying Greek culture and music. She traveled to Greece for the first time this past summer. In the coming year she will leave her home where she grew up in Honolulu and travel to Colorado for college. She dreams of being an English teacher, but she said she’ll always enjoy opera singing.

“I’ll miss being a part of HOT productions,” she said. “It’s been something that I’ve been a part of since I was really small.”

Chris Walsh: Alto

Chris Walsh has been an alto singer with the HOT Choir since 1984, when she sang in her first production of Verdi’s La Traviata. She has since sung in nearly all of the “ABCs” of opera, she said, from Verdi’s Aida to Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. As one of the most the most experienced choristers, Chris said she’s now reached “Kupuna status” within the choir. The productions she’s been a part of have taken her through every emotion – from feeling like her heart was “torn out of her chest, thrown on the floor, and stomped on” after singing in Puccini’s Turandot to laughing hysterically after a wall fell over unexpectedly on the set of a production of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, revealing a group of sheepish and embarrassed choristers. But as a child, Chris hated opera. It wasn’t until she sang with HOT that she began to enjoy the art form.

“I’ve really gone through the whole spectrum of despising opera to having it be a critical part of my life,” she said. “I have met a great deal of wonderful people, have had incredible life experiences, made lifetime friends – the chorus means an awful lot to me. And it’s a joy having so many diverse people come together for a common goal.”

Off the stage, Chris works for a commercial diving company. She also enjoys cooking, weaving lauhala, and gardening in her yard in Aiea.

“I plan to keep with the chorus,” she said. “I’ll keep singing and supporting these efforts and enjoying watching new singers launch into careers.”


Read more chorister stories in the August edition of #HOTSpeaks.

Leslie Goldman

#HOTSpeaks: Mother’s Day Edition

Many of the staff and supporters of HOT have a mother to thank for their love of music. Today, HOT celebrates the musical mothers and children who have kept opera alive from generation to generation.

Passing on music

When HOT Studio singer Leslie Goldman’s daughter and only child was only 10 months old, she could already match pitch with her mother.

“I was singing so much when I was pregnant with her that I think she just came out naturally loving music,” Leslie said, beaming with pride.

Leslie is one of HOT’s principal singers for its Opera Express productions. Opera Express condenses well known operas for an audience of children and tours throughout Hawaii each year. This year Leslie played played both the witch and Gretel in the production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever prepared to be a mother,” Leslie said, “but I think my being patient with the kids on the tour reminds me how important it is to be patient with my little baby when she gets older. And I think singing for the Studio just enhanced my joy of getting to be a mother.”

Leslie is going to try to encourage her daughter to take up music, but she said she will be understanding if she doesn’t want to.

“She can do everything and whatever she wants,” Leslie said.

Following in footsteps

Some people naturally fall into music without any coercion. But former HOT Studio singer Ethan Moon needed a little nudge in the right direction from his mother.

When he was in Kindergarten, his mother – a music teacher and pianist – required that he join choir and take piano lessons.

“I didn’t want to be in choir,” Ethan said. “But she made me go, and I fell in love. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Now 18 years old, Ethan is in his first year in college and pursuing a degree in music. Not only does he still sing in choir at the university, he also plays piano, guitar, and bass.

“I’m following in her footsteps,” Ethan said. “I want to be a music teacher, and that’s what she’s been doing for decades now. I think she would be proud”

Without his mother’s support and the push that she gave him, he wouldn’t be as musical as he is now. But sometimes that guidance can flow both ways.

Encouraging Each Other

Blythe and Quinn Kelsey with their MotherLike Leslie, HOT Education Coordinator Blythe Kelsey’s mother was also singing opera in the days before she was born. And Blythe and her brother, baritone Quinn Kelsey, grew up under their mother’s piano as she taught voice lessons. Along with being a voice teacher and vocal coach, their mother was a choir director for their church and high school.

“We had absolutely no choice but to be involved in all of her many musical endeavors,” Blythe said. “So taking up music was a pretty ongoing thing from a very, very early age.”

Blythe always knew she wanted to pursue a music education, but when Quinn started college in the late 1990s, he was considering other majors. Around his Sophomore year, his mother stepped in and told him to change his major to a music degree.

“It was one of the few times she’s actually put her foot down about things like that,” Blythe said. “I would like to have hoped that he would have come to that decision on his own, but perhaps he needed a little bit of influence. And there’s no influence like a mom’s.”

Since then, Quinn has sung around the world, including in roles for the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, and Opéra National de Paris. In 2016, he returned home to sing the title role of Rigoletto in Concert with HOT.

Now that they are both professionally involved in music as adults, Blythe and Quinn have turned the tables. The two work together to stimulate their mother to continue performing as well as teaching. “It’s always good to remind her of what she is capable of and what she loves to do,” Blythe said.

Thanks to a little encouragement from Blythe and Quinn, their mother is still singing before an audience. Most recently, she sang in the chorus of this season’s production The Tales of Hoffmann.

Developing a Passion

But for some, a musical influence flows in the opposite way altogether. When HOT Board member Gail Atwater speaks about her love for opera, she does so passionately. But she wasn’t always that way.

At around 10 years old, Gail’s daughter joined the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus, or HYOC. Gail hadn’t shared opera with her daughter, so the choice came as somewhat of a surprise.

“I was not interested in opera at the time,” Gail said. “But I got a crash course in opera.”

Gail’s daughter was chosen for the children’s chorus for a number of HOT operas over the year, and as a result, Gail attended several opera rehearsals and performances. One of her Mother’s Day cards from her daughter was even an opera-themed poem. Before long, Gail wanted to go to see as many productions as she could.

Gail’s daughter is now on her way to becoming a surgeon, along with singing as a hobby on the side. And Gail now credits her involvement with opera to her daughter.

“Through my daughter’s involvement in HYOC, I developed my own passion for opera as a unique medium that offered the choral music, beautiful orchestration and grand stagecraft all at the same time,” Gail said. “I really got hooked on it, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.”


Henry Directing The Tales of Hoffmann

The Tales of Henry

A true love for music has guided Henry Akina, Hawaii Opera Theatre’s first Hawaiian director, through more than 120 operas over a 30-year career. 

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann will be the last opera that Henry directs for HOT, before retiring from his role as Artistic Director, which he has held for 20 years. The production will be performed on April 21, 23, and 25 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

In a 2002 HOT concert program Henry wrote: “The opera is but one art form where we can go beyond everyday life to look at some of its mythologies and gain insight into the lives of other characters, and thus into our own.”

With this in mind, the Tales of Henry will look back on Henry’s life and career.

Henry Akina Collage


Henry’s grandfather worked at the Metropolitan Opera, and his parents regularly listened to opera broadcasts. He saw his first opera, Bizet’s Carmen, at HOT when he was only six years old.

“There was a lot of opera lore in our family, but I thought it was just ‘lore,’” Henry said, “and I didn’t really think of it as a career until much later.”

Henry’s parents, who were both medical professionals, were surprised when he turned away from medicine and law in favor of an arts education.  It wasn’t opera that he pursued in primary school, however, it was theater. As a boy, Henry dreamed of being an actor.

But when Henry saw Puccini’s Turandot at HOT as a teenager, he realized something. 

“It really taught me that theater was something that we could do through music, as well,” he said.

And so the ‘Muse of Music’ grabbed Henry and began to influence his life, as the ‘Muse of Poetry’ guided and protected Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann

Hoffmann’s infatuation for the prima donna Stella could have distracted him from his true love of poetry. In a similar sense, theater was only a stepping stone along Henry’s path toward musical creation.

And just as Hoffmann’s three great failed romances paved the way for poetic greatness, three of Henry’s life experiences have factored into his musical inspiration.

Act I: Germany

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree Magna cum Laude in Psychology and Drama from Tufts University in 1977, Henry made a decision that would change his life. He decided to move halfway around the world to Germany to attend the Free University of Berlin Graduate Program, where he could continue to study theater science by working as an assistant director.

“I got coffee, and I did all these other things,” Henry explained in a 2015 PBS interview, “but at that time I was an assistant for language particularly, because they needed someone who spoke English.”

Henry was on track for a successful theater career. But the Muse of Music was about to change everything. 

“Opera as a career was pure happenstance,” Henry told a reporter during a 1998 MidWeek interview. “I was working as an intern in spoken theater, but they canceled the performance. But there was a performance of Faust with Barbara Daniels, and I was invited to work on that.”

The hands-on experience of working as a director’s assistant on an opera revitalized his interest in the art form that he was introduced to as a child. He started buying himself opera tickets and assisting on more opera productions. Henry still considered theater his main focus until he saw a production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

“It was a kind of opera that I hadn’t seen before,” Henry said. “It was abstract and delightful. I can only tell you that it made me feel a lot. It took me to a place where I had never been before. Theater hadn’t really done that for me.”

And thus a love for opera was born. Music, Henry found, could heighten the emotion of theater.

He transitioned from working on theatrical sets to musical sets and learned the differences between staging actors and singers. The director, Henry told PBS, is there to “make things live for the singer.”

In the early 1980s, a class of opera singers and a pianist heard saw some of the pieces that Henry had directed and reached out to him with a proposition. They were interested in starting a company and wanted him to be its director.

Founding An Opera Company

Henry was surprised. The fact that they chose him out of any other director in the area puzzles him to this day, he said. But the choice didn’t come as a surprise to others. 

“He had a commitment to the arts, he was very good at choosing the repertoire and finding the right artists, and people recognized that,” said Brynmor Llewelyn Jones, a conductor who was working in Berlin at the time. “When you get somebody like that to work with, you don’t ask many questions.”  Henry and Brynmor co-founded the Berlin Chamber Opera in 1981, and with nothing more than eager singers, a pianist, and some stage lights, the group got to work.

Henry Akina in Germany

The company developed a reputation for its alternative opera productions, ranging from early Baroque repertoire to contemporary works.  The company received state funding only a couple years in, and its productions started selling out in the third year.

Henry directed over 50 opera productions in the following 15 years, including four world premieres. He attributed the company’s success at that time to the motivation of its people, which Brynmor described as “250 percent.” 

“They were people who wanted to work,” Henry said. “That gives you a whole different kind of energy.”

Positive reviews poured in over the years. One local reporter called Henry “undeniably impressive” as a director in a 1993 review. But the company faced tough times, as well.  In 1984, costume material caught fire onstage during a Mozart production. The venue had to be evacuated, but no one was injured. And in 1986, a turntable that was integral to a production malfunctioned onstage, forcing singers to improvise before the audience. 

“There was enough balance and enough good stuff with that bad that kept it going, though,” Henry said.

Around that same time, Henry began teaching acting and performance skills to opera singers at the Conservatory of the Arts in West Berlin. He also started accepting offers to direct operas across Europe. But the Berlin Chamber Opera remained his priority.

“Berlin [Chamber Opera] was his baby,” Elsa Grima, Henry’s first Assistant Director, said.  Henry met Elsa while he was directing Busoni’s Turandot at the Opéra National de Lyon in France and he invited her to Berlin to work with him. At the time, Elsa wasn’t confident about her directing abilities, but Henry saw potential in her.

“When I first met him I was just a beginner, and I thought I was so bad,” she said. “He believed in me before I believed in myself.” 

Elsa worked with Henry on four productions at the Berlin Chamber Opera. She described his leadership as relaxed and fun, and she said his trust in her was “entire.” Henry was not only Elsa’s mentor, but a friend who she could spend time with outside of rehearsals.

“You don’t learn directing. You get inspired,” she said.  Elsa worked with Henry for years before accepting a position as Stage Manager at the Paris Opera.  She has also worked with Henry at Hawaii Opera Theatre as Stage Manager several times over the years, including last season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Responding to an Invitation

By the 1990s, Henry had lived in Germany longer than he had lived in Hawaii. But he thought about Hawaii often.

During one Berlin Chamber Opera production, Henry had directed a singer to dance with the audience in Monteverdi’s Il ballo delle ingrate.  As he watched the opera from the audience’s perspective for the first time, the scene reminded him of something familiar.  “It was kind of like a Luau,” Henry said.

He had been keeping up with opera in Hawaii and was impressed by many productions, but until a HOT board member reached out to him about the search for a new Director in 1996, he hadn’t considered returning.

“They put out a call into the wilderness, and I was ready to come home,” Henry told MidWeek.  The invitation came at a time where Henry was already considering looking for something new. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was no expectation for funding for the Berlin Chamber Opera. Without funding, the company couldn’t go on.

“We both saw the writing on the wall,” Brynmor said. “The reaction here was one of understanding, but also sadness.”

Henry’s time in Germany gave him a love of opera, taught him about leading an opera company, and encouraged him to instruct others. He would take each of those lessons with him as he started his new journey as Director back in his island home.

Act II: Hawaii

The HOT opera program, “Aria,” has always featured designs relating to the production being presented. But in 1996, there was a special edition of Aria.

On the cover was Henry, in Aloha attire, sitting in a chair with a warm smile on his face. The only accompanying text proudly pronounced “Henry G. Akina takes the reins of HOT.” Henry was back in Hawaii, after more than two decades in Germany, to serve as the first local-born manager of HOT.

“To be invited to manage this company, in the town of my birth, is a unique blessing, one that I approach with a sense of challenge and responsibility.” Henry said in the 1996 Aria. It was the first of nearly 30 Director’s Notes he would write for HOT audiences over the years.

When he returned back to Hawaii, Henry said he felt welcomed. He remembered someone telling him he hadn’t forgotten his local roots.

“Henry was at home in Hawaii,” Elsa Grima, who had worked with Henry in both Germany and Hawaii, said. “He was in his element.”

HOT was special to Henry. The company presented the first opera performances he had ever seen. And he had plenty of plans for its next steps.

Henry laid out his goals for HOT in the 1996 Aria. They included producing more operatic activities throughout the year, expanding the education program, and balancing the repertoire between classics and new works. He felt that HOT could be a “cultural lighthouse in the community,” he said.

Henry explained in a 1998 interview with Midweek that he felt HOT was built on Puccini, but there was much more to draw upon from within the art form’s 400-year history.  “I wanted to make musical changes and production changes… I wanted to change everything,” Henry said.

The scheduled 1997 and 1998 season productions, which included the Hawaii debut of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, shed some light on the direction that he wanted to take the company. Henry wanted to relate to local audiences, and he wanted to show them literature they might already be familiar with in a different way.

“I wanted opera more for the people,” Henry said. “I think that every audience is different and every community is different.”
Since then, Henry has staged several acclaimed productions like Madam Butterfly, Tosca, The Mikado, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of the 28 productions he has directed, almost half were Hawaii premiers.

Many of Henry’s aspirations for HOT were realized. The company now produces operas throughout the year, he expanded and founded new programs within the company’s educational outreach, and he certainly introduced new repertoire.

In a 2001 program, Henry appeared confident as he declared: “Yes there is opera in Hawaii, and yes, opera thrives here. Come celebrate with us.”

It was the program for that year’s production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann – the same production that would be his last with HOT.

Staging the Last Production

Henry didn’t know that The Tales of Hoffmann would be his last production with the company when he picked this season’s repertoire. He didn’t pick it for any sentimental reason. But the production speaks to him, and his artistic direction shines within it.

“I’ll try to bring as much joy and as much happiness to the production as possible, and I’ll let the music of the opera shine through,” Henry said.

This is the third time Henry has directed the opera. The last time he directed it was in 2001. Both productions utilized Peter Dean Beck’s set designs, but aside from that similarity, Henry said the current production is “a fully new opera.”

Eric Fennell plays the lead role of Hoffmann in this production. It’s his fifth time singing Hoffmann’s arias, but he said that each time is very different. And Henry’s direction will give this a new spin, Eric said.

“Henry is a wonderful resource,” He said. “When you work with someone who is as experienced as Henry is, I just try to listen as much as I can.”

Henry told Eric during one rehearsal that Hoffmann should not be the hero of the opera. That stuck with Eric and changed the way he performed the role.

“I want artists to walk away [from HOT productions] with a positive experience that hopefully is enlightening,” Henry said.

Audiences who watch the opera will also be able to see Henry’s influence in the staging of certain characters, according to HOT Artistic Administrator Barett Hoover, who has worked with Henry for about a decade.

Barett points to Henry’s use of the local, volunteer HOT chorus. Henry stages the chorus in a way that helps tell the story, Barett said. “Henry makes them more than just background figures,” Barett said.

The relationship Henry has with the chorus has also impressed Olivia Vote, who debuts with HOT in this production as the Muse.

“Everyone has such a respect and awareness of Henry’s contribution,” Olivia said. “There is no other place where the chorus will come to rehearsals five nights a week. But they do it here, because that’s what he expects. They want to work with him, and that’s the kind of community he’s created.” 

Throughout the company, from the chorus to the board, donors, and staff, people have felt Henry’s impact.

Bringing “World-Class” to Hawaii

As Henry reflects on his impact on HOT, he does so humbly.

“I think I’ve had a positive impact, but I don’t know,” he said. “The people here are the judge of that.”

Many people and organizations have already made their judgments in favor, however. In 2015, the Hawaii Arts Alliance recognized Henry with its Alfred Preis Honor for his commitment to arts and arts education in Hawaii, and the state legislature awarded Henry a certificate for his lifelong service to the arts last year.

Additionally, HOT Board President Jim McCoy said he feels that Henry is the reason that HOT produces world-class opera. Barett said he feels the same way.

“He looked at more of a world-wide perspective and saw us in the grand opera landscape,” He said. “I think increasing the artistic standards of the company was probably his biggest legacy.”

But Henry has also left behind a living legacy – one that will impact the world long after he’s left the company. The Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio, Henry said, is his most proud accomplishment with HOT.

Act III: Legacy

In the mid-1990s, the Hawaii representative from the Arthur and Mae Orvis Foundation was speaking with local arts organizations to try to find ideas for initiatives to fund. The representative reached out to Henry and HOT’s education team. Henry had an idea for a HOT “studio” that could do more for its community, and the funding presented an opportunity to bring his idea to fruition.

“I was envisioning a professional company of Hawaiian people that were talented operatically,” Henry said.

Henry, HOT Director of Education Erik Haines, and HOT Head of Music Beebe Freitas, assembled to plan the direction of the studio. The three determined that the main goal would be to provide opportunities and connections for young local singers to interact with professionals in the opera world. The prospect was granted funding and was named the Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio.

“I think that the opera studio is one of my great accomplishments,” Henry said.

Because the studio was fully funded, participants who auditioned could take part free of charge. Studio members ranged from college age to slightly older. It quickly gained popularity, with around 10 to 20 members every year since its inception.

“Henry saw that there was all this raw talent here in Hawaii, but the singers needed more skills,” said Malia Ka’ai-Barrett, who was a member of the original studio class. “So the studio created a way to foster some skills.”

When Malia started with the studio, she was a perfect example of someone who had the talent, but needed further instruction to open more doors in the industry. She had studied music, taken part in several choirs, and had sung in front of plenty of audiences. But like many singers, she had yet to master all of the elements of performance.

“[The studio] is not just about singing, it’s about performing,” Erik said. “That includes what do you do physically in terms of making the sound and what do you in terms of creating the world of what you are singing, whether it’s a Broadway piece or an art song or an aria.”

In the first few years of the studio, Henry served as an expert who could offer studio members feedback in their staging, acting, auditioning, and performance.

“We want to create a full performance,” Henry told PBS in a 2015 interview, “and I’ve usually had very collaborative relationships with singers to try and get that out of them.”

As the studio was able to bring in more clinicians to instruct members over the years – from pianists to directors to dancers – Henry stopped instructing classes. Renowned opera experts, such as conductor and pianist Mark Morash, conductor Tim Shaindlin, and singers Jake and Jill Gardner, have taken his place. The studio has also been visited by well known names in opera, such as Frederica von Stade and Sylvia McNair.

The studio usually brings in anywhere from two to six clinicians for master classes each year. Malia says she is consciously aware of how much she improves after each.

“I’m always thankful for what HOT has done, and it really has been because of Henry having the thought and the willingness to commit to it,” she said.

But the studio has also provided benefits for HOT. Although studio members don’t have to pay any fees, they are expected to participate in the chorus for at least one of the season’s opera productions. Erik said this helps provide a stable core for the HOT chorus and introduces new, young members. The company has also gained enough confidence in some of the studio members to present them as live performers at some of its most prestigious events, such as the annual opera ball.

And though Henry is retiring, the studio will remain a priority for HOT. Erik said that in the coming years he plans to expand the singers’ meeting schedules to include more workshops where they can listen to, evaluate, and assist each other in moving forward.

“The studio has been important for me personally, but I think for so many, in helping turn us from singers who enjoy singing into singing performers and singing actors,” Malia said. “And that’s really what opera is about.”

Many of the studio’s members have taken the instruction and networking a step further and translated it into a career.

Becoming Professionals

Most of the professional opera singers who have come out of Hawaii in the last few decades, in fact, can trace their roots back to the HOT studio, Malia said. And Henry was a big inspiration to some of the singers who made it big.

“I think for island kids – local kids – in particular,  it’s really scary to go outside of Hawaii,” Malia said. “It was inspiring to have somebody who had gone away, had success, and then came home telling us, ‘you’re more than capable of doing this, but you need some skills, so let’s get you ready.’”

Trying to get started in an opera career took more than just talent, Malia and others learned. A singer needed to have established a polished repertoire of pieces they could perform in an audition, they needed to know how to audition, they needed to be able to perform, and they needed head shots. But above all else, they needed to have the guts to put themselves out there. And the fact that Henry had faith in the community that he grew up in made a difference, Malia said.

One young baritone singer who had the talent and the guts was Quinn Kelsey. He was a member of the original studio class, along with Malia.

“Quinn was this guy who was really of international stature, who was really quite good,” Henry remembered.

Quinn took what he learned in the studio and ran with it. With support from HOT, he started an opera career and quickly gained notoriety. Since then he has sung around the world, including in roles for the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, and Opéra National de Paris. In 2016, he returned home to sing the title role of Rigoletto in Concert with HOT.

“The Orvis Opera Studio, in essence, allowed me a huge leg up as I finished college and began to move into the ever growing pool of young artists searching for the direction in which to take the next step in their budding careers,” Quinn said. “I gained so much insight into an operatic career, as well as honing the many tools I would later use to hitting the ground running as a full-fledged artist. I don’t know that I would be as successful as I am today if not for all that the Orvis Opera Studio gave me all those years ago.”

Other former studio singers who have now made a career out of opera include baritone Jordan Shanahan and tenor Jeremy Blossey. Several others have gone on to pursue music master’s degrees or work in musical theatre. Malia now serves as the General Manager of the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus.

Henry is happy with all of the outcomes, he said, as long as he was able to contribute to helping people learn more about opera.

“I would always like them to be world stars,” he said, “but I would also be happy with them staying here in Hawaii.”


Henry’s retirement has come as a surprise to many, including himself.

His decision, he said, is in response to a recent diagnosis with a progressive neurological disorder, which he feels will soon make it difficult to direct.

“I’m leaving the company in good hands,” Henry said. “I hope that in the future, even more people see opera as a form of theatre that really is emotional.”

Henry has certainly done his part in exposing others to opera. And his experiences in theater and music have touched many in Hawaii and all over the world. He brought opera premieres to Germany and Hawaii, he gave young directors the confidence to stage their own productions, and he helped transform raw talent in Hawaii into a company of professional performers. But Henry said he’s not done.

“The fat lady hasn’t sung yet,” Henry said with his signature laugh. “There’s more to come. That’s up to the world.”

Henry will be named Artistic Director Emeritus upon leaving HOT. The Henry Akina fund has also been created in his honor, and donations will provide support for at least one production each year or for visiting directors.

After directing his last production, Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, HOT’s singers sent him off with hoards of leis and a performance of Queen Lili’uokalani’s song “Aloha ‘oe.”

Not long before, in the last act of The Tales of Hoffmann, Hoffmann had realized that his three great failed loves all resembled the primadonna Stella. When Stella returned to the bar where he was drinking, he had drank too much to even realize she was there. With no one left to distract Hoffmann, the angelic Muse of Poetry presented herself and proclaimed that Hoffmann could finally fulfill his destiny as a poet.

“From the embers of your heart we kindle your genius,” she sang.

For Henry, the great tales of his life – from Germany to his living legacy in Hawaii – have also left embers in his heart. They all resemble his original fondness for theatre, but it was the Muse of Music that truly kindled his genius.

“I’ve always found inspiration in music,” Henry said. “I will always look to music as a source of possible inspiration.”

By: Allison Kronberg

#HOTSpeaks: Singer Gets Kids Excited About Opera

Leslie Goldman wanted to sing in any way possible when she auditioned to be a singer for the Hawaii Opera Theatre Orvis Studio in 2015. So she included in her application that she was open to being considered for all performance opportunities the studio offered.

She didn’t expect that she would become one of the stars of Opera Express, but she’s fallen in love with the role.

Opera Express is a HOT Education program that brings kid-friendly versions of popular operas to Elementary and Middle Schools throughout the state. 

“I almost like it better than singing for adults,” Leslie said. “You have the opportunity to be as crazy as you want, because you’re doing anything to keep the kids engaged. You really have to utilize every little tool in your performer’s toolbox.”

This year Leslie has played both the witch and Gretel in the production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. The production also features three other adult performers and student volunteers. Opera Express will be seen by students across Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island, once it has finished touring.

Last year Opera express reached 15,400 students at 62 schools throughout the state.

Leslie shared that a lot of the students like opera because they are able to tell a story and be loud.

 “It’s exciting to share opera with kids,” Leslie said. “At first they’re kind of shocked, and they laugh and imitate you, but then you can tell they’re engaged with the music.”

She noticed that performing in the opera could even change students’ behaviors.

One student who was playing a gingerbread boy was throwing things backstage and not paying attention to directions, Leslie said. She worried that he might disrupt the performance.

But as soon as he got on stage, Leslie saw a change. The boy became remarkably more focused.

“I’ve noticed that with a couple kids. Once they get up in front of an audience, they utilize extra energy for better,” Leslie said. “It’s the ‘magic of the theatre,’ so to speak.”

HOT Education Director Erik Haines said he has not only seen opera improve student performance onstage, but also in the classroom.

And Leslie found that even she was learning something new throughout the performances.

She discovered that she had cared too much about her own ego when she had sung in front of adults. Singing in front of children improved how she performed.

“Where I’ve faltered in the past as a performer is that I would stand up there singing just hoping my audience would like me and think I’m fabulous,” Leslie said. “Whereas when I’m in front of kids, I’m just doing my job as a musician. I want them to learn about music, I want them to stay interested, and I want them to have fun. It’s not about me.”

What started as one of many boxes checked at an audition has made Leslie a better performer and has given students across the state the opportunity to experience the classic art of opera.

 “I hope my performances bring the kids a lot of joy, I hope they have a really fun time watching it, and I hope that a kid who might be interested in performing will be inspired to get up and have fun,” she said.


To support HOT Education initiatives like Opera Express, click the button below.

To bring Opera Express to your school, email e_haines@hawaiiopera.org for availability.


By Allison Kronberg

Finding Love at the Opera

#HOTSpeaks: Finding Love at the Opera

The opera stage is filled with love, passion, and lust. But sometimes all of that romance finds its way into the seats of the concert hall, too.

Sarah Bauer, 30, and Nick Yee, 36, have been dating for more than three years, and Hawaii Opera Theatre’s HOT Tuesday was their official first date.

“It’s actually thanks to HOT Tuesday that I can remember the anniversary of what we now call our first date,” Sarah said.

Nick and Sarah met when Nick was hired as a DJ for an HOT Preview event being put on at The ARTS at Marks Garage, where Sarah was working at the time. Sarah was surprised to hear several songs she liked and didn’t know, and she asked Nick to send her some of the titles.

It was music that brought them together. But opera made it official.

Nick had an extra ticket to HOT’s 2014 production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman on HOT Tuesday, a pau hana, pre-opera event for young professionals.

“Taking her to the opera seemed like a ‘serious move,’” Nick said. “I was looking at it like there was this sort of old world charm about it. I wanted her to know that I was serious.”

It did impress Sarah. She actually had already planned on going to the opera herself.

“There was something really magical about a date at the opera,” Sarah said. “It was such a classic sort of thing that you would see in the movies.”








The two were interested in each other, but they were still a bit nervous. The fact that HOT Tuesday included a cocktail pre-party calmed their nerves.

“At HOT Tuesday, you’re able to talk to the person that you’re on the date with, have a couple drinks, relax, have something to eat, relax – you know?” Sarah said. “And you have this great conversation starter for yourselves afterwards.”

Nick appreciated that Sarah enjoyed the opera.

He was looking for someone cultured, he said, and he thought he just might have found that in her.

“I was so starstruck by her,” Nick said. “Every time she opened her mouth she said something really beautiful and well thought out and very musically enlightened.”

But Nick had one more question for Sarah. He introduced it after the opera production, when the two were at a nearby bar.

“‘Do you like jazz?’ It’s a simple question, but it’s a very loaded one,” Nick said. “Within jazz, like opera, there’s a lot of subtlety, there’s a lot of messages, and there’s a lot mixed into it. Basically, it’s asking someone, ‘Do you speak the same language I speak?’”

Sarah did. She spoke it so well, in fact, that she surprised him. On a date not long after, Sarah even played an album for Nick by one of his favorite jazz artists, but he hadn’t yet heard the album.

That was when he knew she was a keeper.

That ‘shared language’ is the glue that’s kept the couple together.

“What’s made it last so long? It’s shared interests, it’s teamwork, it’s mutual support of each other, and it’s communication, bolstered by a mutual love of the arts,” Nick said of their relationship.

Nick and Sarah now live together and also work together at Hawaii Public Radio.

When asked if they have plans for Valentines Day, the two said they’re letting each other off the hook this year because they have busy days at work.

It didn’t take long, however, for Nick to admit that he had plans after all. Nick will be starting a new position as the host of a music program on HPR that day, and he plans to play two hours worth of music that reminds him of Sarah.

Maybe even an aria from The Flying Dutchman will slip in.

Even though they won’t be going on a Valentines Day date, Nick and Sarah know they always have a date night in their future at the opera.

“We’ve kept the tradition of HOT Tuesday alive, and we love it. It’s one of our favorite nights out,” Sarah said.


The next HOT Tuesday will take place on  April 25 before the HOT production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Call the HOT Box Office to book your date night today.

(808) 596-7858.