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.