The Tales of Henry Act II: Hawaii
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.
Feeling At home
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.
By: Allison Kronberg