Tag Archives: Hawaii Opera Theatre

HOT's Daughter of the Regiment

10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment

Still looking for reasons to see HOT’s production of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment? Here’s 10! 
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Photo by Brian Kuhlmann

1. Metropolitan Opera Star Audrey Luna 

Hawaii’s own Grammy Award-winning Soprano Audrey Luna stars as Marie! Audrey broke the record for the highest note ever sung on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage earlier this year. Opera News has said that she “has power and a blazing coloratura facility that most lyric sopranos can only dream of.” Read Audrey’s thoughts on returning to Hawaii in this #HOTSpeaks post
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2. The Tenor Aria With 9 High C’s 

With no less than 9 high C’s, Donizetti’s “Ah, Mes Amis,” sung by the character Tonio, is famously considered an impressive vocal feat for a tenor. Listen to this recording of HOT’s Tonio, Italian-American Tenor Michele Angelini, flawlessly performing the aria. Then come see him sing it live in his HOT debut! 

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Photo Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

3. It’s a Comedy 

“It’s a rollicking combination of esprit de corps, slapstick antics and innocent romance — not to mention intoxicating music highlighted by spectacular vocal writing.” ~ NPR 
Few associate comedy with opera. But the Daughter of the Regiment is filled with parody, irony, and eccentric characters. Even the premise of an army brat adopted by the French Regiment is comical. So get ready to laugh! 

Opera History in Hawaii
4. The Local Historical Significance 

A rich history of opera in Hawaii dates back to the 1800s. Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment was the first known operatic performance in Hawaii in 1854. Learn more about opera’s local history in this #HOTSpeaks article

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5. The French Language 

The French language is regarded as beautiful and romantic when spoken – imagine it sung! But don’t worry, HOT provides English supertitles, so you’ll always know what’s going on in the plot. 

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6. HOT Debuts 

Tenor Michele Angelini Debuts with HOT in the role of Tonio, along with Mezzo-Soprano Jenni Bank, who debuts in the role of the Marquise. Michele is heralded by the Dallas Morning News as an artist who “displays a voice of silken loveliness as well as graceful agility.” The Baltimore Sun has said of Jenni that she has a “deep, dark, penetrating tone… that can extract Verdian richness.” 

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7. The Duchess Guest Appearance 

HOT recently announced surprise guest as the Duchess of Crackenthorpe in Donizetti’s comedy, Daughter of the Regiment: Soprano Jill Gardner. “The Southern Songbird” joins a long list of guest stars to play the non-singing role of the Duchess, including US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

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8. HOT Favorites Jake Gardner and Jamie Offenbach 

HOT is thrilled to welcome back Baritone Jake Gardner and Bass-Baritone Jamie Offenbach, singing the roles of Sulpice and Hortensius, respectively. You’ll remember Jake from the 2008 production A Little Night Music, and Jamie most recently sang in the 2016 HOT production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

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9. It’s Donizetti 

Along with Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, Donizetti was a leading composer of the bel canto opera style during the first half of the nineteenth century. He penned some of opera’s most famous shows, including LElisir dAmoreDon PasqualeLucia di Lammermoor, and Anna Bolena

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Photo Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

10. There’s a Happy Ending 

Opera can be pretty grim. La Bohème, Macbeth, Roméo et Juliette, and more end with death, insanity, or both. We won’t spoil the ending of The Daughter of the Regiment for those who haven’t seen it, but rest assured that every character lives to see the end! 


As One Opera Hawaii

Operawire names HOT’s As One in Top 5 Operas to See

The international online publication OperaWire named HOT’s production of As One in its Top 5 Operas to see This Weekend in North America for the weekend of Friday, January 12, 2018!

Read the Full Article

As One will be performed this weekend, January 13 and January 14, at 4 pm, along with a closing performance on Tuesday, January 16, at 7:30 pm at the Aloha Tower Terminal, Pier 10.

As One
A chamber opera for two singers and string quartet
Music and Concept by Laura Kaminsky
Libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed
Film by Kimberly Reed

“A piece that haunts and challenges its audience with questions about identity, authenticity, compassion and the human desire for self-love and peace.” ~ Opera News

Created by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, As One depicts with empathy and humor the journey of a transgender person named Hannah as she achieves self-fulfillment in her life. The 75-minute opera stars Sasha Cooke and Kelly Markgraf, who are married in real life and created the roles of “Hannah after” and “Hannah before” at the 2014 premiere. 

Don’t miss out! Tickets from $35 at Tickets.HawaiiOpera.Org, by phone at 808.596.7858, or at the door.

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Star Advertiser TGIF Cover: ‘As One’ Opera Explores Transgender Experience

In the world of stage and entertainment, it’s not uncommon to have one person play two roles. Less common is to have two characters play one — unless it’s a “Bewitching” situation where Dick Sargent replaced Dick York. It’s also not unheard of to have men play a female role — just witness the film “Jumanji: In the Jungle.”

But it would be safe to say that none of those is quite as innovative as “As One,” a chamber opera presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre starting next week. The opera has only character, a transgender person named Hannah, who over the course of the opera transitions from male to female. Hannah is portrayed by the husband-wife duo of baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who as “Hannah before” and “Hannah after” simultaneously experience life through the prism of both genders.

In its four-year history “As One” has become a favorite among small opera ensembles, with more than a dozen productions already staged and several more planned for this year. The New York Classical Review called it “everything we hoped for in contemporary opera: topical, poignant, daring and beautifully written.”

Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre>> Where: Aloha Tower, Pier 10
>> When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Jan. 16, 4 p.m. Jan. 13-14
>> Cost: $35-$65
>> Info: 596-7858, hawaiiopera.org

For Cooke, a Grammy-winning operatic singer, and Markgraf, known for his versatility in classical, pop and jazz roles, the appearance here will mark a homecoming of sorts; Cooke is a direct descendant of Amos Cooke, the missionary and businessman who laid the groundwork for Castle & Cooke, one of Hawaii’s “Big Five” corporations. The pair got married here and visit as often as possible.

Markgraf and Cooke gave the world premiere of “As One” in 2014, but HOT’s production will be only their second time performing it together since then, as both are in heavy demand by opera companies around the world.

“I haven’t been free for any of the ones I was requested to do, but Hawaii was awesome because they really worked around our schedule to make it work,” said Cooke, speaking from her home in Texas a few days after performances in Germany.

“As One” had its genesis in 2012, when New Jersey, along with other states, was wrestling with the issue of same-sex marriage. Composer Laura Kaminsky read a newspaper story about a husband, who, with his wife’s support, was planning to undergo gender reassignment. New Jersey did not recognize same-sex marriages at the time, so once the man transitioned, their union would have been derecognized and all the benefits derived from marriage — Social Security, health insurance, retirement — would be in jeopardy.

“They were in love as people, not as body parts, and if the law did not pass in New Jersey, they would no longer be married and they’d lose all those benefits,” she said. “As I read the article, I was thinking, ‘This is operatic. … What is it to be a fully realized human being, in the context of the people in your orbit, and then what are you willing to give up in order to gain yourself?’”

It a took a number of random events to bring “As One” to fruition in its final form. Kaminsky, a respected composer of contemporary music, had never created an opera before and until then had never been interested in doing so. But during a visit to Russia she obtained some rarely performed Shostakovich scores, and seeking someone to perform them, connected with Cooke, whose parents are Russian-language professors in Texas, and Markgraf.

“I fell in love with them,” Kaminsky said. “They’re extraordinary artists, but it’s because they’re extraordinary human beings. They’re deeply empathic, spiritual and empathetic and intellectual all at once. … I wanted them to be in my opera; in fact, I wanted them to ‘be’ my opera. I wanted them to be the one character.”

Kaminsky came across the story of filmmaker Kimberly Reed, a transgender person whose story of transition from male to female and her interaction with her rural hometown was told in the film “Prodigal Sons.” Kaminsky teamed up Reed with Mark Campbell, a respected opera librettist, to come up with a story, tossing a few ideas around initially but not coming up with anything.

“I started talking to Kim (Reed), saying, ‘Why don’t you tell me about some of your experiences as a transgender person?’” Campbell said. “She talked about having a bicycle route, the way all boys did when people looked at newspapers, and one day she decided to do it in a blouse.”

That incident would eventually become the opening scene of “As One.”

Much of the opera reflects Reed’s experience, but it is not biographical, Campbell said. Some parts are drawn from other known incidents, such as assaults on transgender people.

For Campbell, “As One,” while reflecting the particulars of a transgender person, has a universality that will make the story relevant to people no matter their interest or knowledge of the issues.

“This is about a person’s happiness,” said Campbell, who as a gay man identified with some of the identity issues raised in the opera.

“If you know a transgender person, you will realize that there is nothing different about them, that they are just seeking happiness. They were not born with a gender they feel they are. Why would you deny someone’s happiness? If you reduce it to that, most people cannot fight it.”

“As One” traces Hannah’s journey in 15 vignettelike songs, many of them sung by both singers as they reflect on incidents from a male or female perspective. For example, in a song about a grade school handwriting class, “Cursive,” Markgraf as “Hannah before” stresses out over writing in a restrictive, masculine style; Cooke as “Hannah after” worries about writing “like my cousin Annie” with “generous loops” and “graceful swirls.”

For Cooke and Markgraf, “As One” was a revelation into gender behavior, especially in children.

“I didn’t really fully understand what it meant to be transgender and how early kids have the feeling that they’re in the wrong body. All of that really blew my mind,” said Cooke, who won a Grammy for her role in the Metropolitan Opera’s recording of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic.”

“As One” required them to inhabit each other’s persona fully. One Hannah might be singing, for example, while the other is acting out the confused emotions underlying the song.

“Sometimes the person who’s not singing acts more,” Cooke said.

Being married proved to be advantageous in working that out.

“We’re so comfortable with each other,” she said. “We share one mind sometimes.”

Musically, “As One” is written in Kaminsky’s jazzy, contemporary style, played by a string quartet. It was a challenge for the singers but has proved accessible for listeners.

One of the tunes. “To Know,” has come to be considered the high point of the work. Sung by both performers, it expresses the excitement of discovering transgenderism for the first time.

Markgraf considers another song, “Perfect Boy,” in the first act, to be pivotal.

“It really goes to the heart of what forces are at play,” he said. “Hannah before is really truly trying to suppress and push down all of these things because of family influence and societal influence, because of all the inculcation that happens as we’re being raised. … It’s this repetitive ‘Push down, push down. No, I will not be seen this way, I will not feel this way.’”

Markgraf, who has performed as Hannah before in two other productions, said the work has provoked heartfelt, emotional responses, not only from transgender people, but people who knew little of the subject before experiencing the show.

Cooke added that people should not worry about feeling squeamish about the subject matter.

“I think a lot of people that come to this show expect or maybe wonder if they’ll be uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s quite the opposite. Transgender is merely an avenue to discuss accepting yourself. Any person, everybody can relate to that journey of, ‘What do I really want out of this life. Who am I?’”

By Steven Mark, The Star Advertiser TGIF

HOT Opera For Everyone

Carmen OFE Reaches 1,300 Students!

A big mahalo to all students and chaperones who came out for last night’s Opera For Everyone, the last dress rehearsal of Carmen! More than 1,300 students saw the production through HOT Education.

Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services shared this photo of their group at the event:

HOT Opera For Everyone

And HOT asked a few students during intermission what they liked about the show:

Established 1991, HOT’s Opera for Everyone program offers students from elementary through high school and college classes (age 24 and under) the opportunity to enjoy the live opera experience for just $7!  Teachers and others working with Hawaii’s youth may reserve seating for the Wednesday before each opera opening. This is the final full orchestra dress rehearsal and designated Opera For Everyone night reserved exclusively for this purpose during the regular school year.

In addition to the opera production, HOT’s Opera For Everyone program provides expanded opportunities for schools to incorporate the performing arts into regular curricula. Many teachers intrigued by opera tie-ins to literature, culture, language, geography, science and math, integrate the Opera For Everyone program into their classroom activities.

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.

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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. 

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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.

Hawai'i Arts Alliance Study

Study: Hawaii Arts and the Economy

The Hawai’i Arts Alliance has released the 2017 report on The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts & Cultural Organizations & Their Audiences in the state. HOT is proud to have contributed to this study. 

Read the National and Hawaii State summaries.

Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 is a year-long nationwide study that highlights the impact that nonprofit arts & culture organizations have on our economy through job creation, tourism, direct & indirect spending, household income, and government revenue. 

In the state of Hawai‘i, spending by nonprofit arts & cultural organizations and their audiences totaled $205.6 million. Nonresidents made up 7.9% of attendees, and spent 155% more per person to attend an event, due to the surrounding expenses of lodging, meals, and transportation. Nearly 45% of nonresident attendees indicated that the primary purpose of their visit to the state was “specifically to attend this arts/cultural event”, indicating the power of the arts to drive tourism.

More information about the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 study can be found here.

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Video: Niu Valley Middle School Residency Trailer

HOT Education is making music with students at Niu Valley Middle School this summer. Incoming 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students are producing the beloved opera Verdi’s Macbeth, which will be performed at Niu Valley Middle School on Wednesday, June 28 at 6 p.m. Enjoy this trailer for the upcoming production!

Happy #MakeMusicDay from Hawaii Opera Theatre! from Hawaii Opera Theatre on Vimeo.

The production is an extension of HOT’s Residency Program, which turns a school, grade level or participating classrooms into an Opera Production Company.  Students sing, create props and sets, and produce other elements of the opera before performing it before a live audience. The Opera Residency has become an annual learning program for the schools, and its success shows.

Hawaii's Quinn Kelsey

Quinn Kelsey on the cover of Opera News

Quinn Kelsey talks upcoming roles, the music on his iPod, HOT, and more in his Opera News June Cover Feature!


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Quinn Kelsey started singing opera in 1991, as a teenage chorister at Hawaii Opera Theatre. The Kelsey family is musical: his mother is a classically trained singer who worked as a choir director for more than twenty-five years. ‘My sister, Blythe, and I learned a ton of musicality singing in her choirs—she was giving us voice lessons in the middle of learning the music for next Sunday. There was a point where my sister was the soprano section, my dad was the tenor section, I was the bass section, and Mom kind of filled up the alto section and conducted at the same time. And whoever else decided to come into the choir that Sunday—great!’ Kelsey did his undergraduate degree in Hawaii, which allowed him to sing with Hawaii Opera Theatre and ‘gain all kinds of exposure in an environment where I felt at home.'” – Quinn Kelsey for Opera News.

Quinn has sung around the world, including in roles for the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, and Opéra National de Paris. He is an alumnus of the original Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio class. In 2016, he returned home to sing the title role of Rigoletto in Concert with HOT. 

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.

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“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.

A TIMELINE OF 3 166x416 - The Tales of Henry“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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