The Big Island doesn’t have the Metropolitan Opera. But for three glorious weeks in July for the past 14 years, we have the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF), bringing world-class performing artists as well as the finest up-and-coming young opera and musical theater singers to our shores. It’s my favorite three weeks of the year.
The vocal students, culled from hundreds of applicants across the country, study intensively with the faculty and then, as if sprinkled with pixie dust, spread their wings and fly through a dazzling array of concerts, operas and musicals within those three short weeks. A number of the Young Singers are the children of our neighbors right here on Big Island; we got a taste of their talent in “Spring Awakening” at the Kahilu. HPAF, whose mission is mentorship, collaborated with the Kahilu Youth Troupe on that production.
The truncated season starts off with an HPAF tradition, “Opera on the Rocks.” No, not lava rocks, but alcoholic (and other) drinks on ice! Once properly relaxed, the audience is ready to leave their stresses behind (and by the way, HPAF has offered free tickets to some events to refugees from the eruption in Puna) and to enter into the magical world of song.
The first of two “Rocks” concerts was in the lobby of the Palace Theater in Hilo. It was set up with cabaret-style tables. No stage, no set, no costumes, no orchestra. It’s up close and intimate: just you, piano, and expansive throats causing the room to become a tuning fork, vibrating with sound.
The first half introduced us to the four faculty members featured in this concert. Justin John Moniz, with his supple tenor and his great sense of timing, whether the song is mocking or yearning, is familiar to HPAF aficionados since he has participated since 2009, first as a student and now as the Executive Director. It’s a pleasure to hear him again.
Nowadays in the world of opera, having a fantastic voice is not enough. You have to develop the character you are portraying while simultaneously performing vocal gymnastics, and all four brought their characters to life. I especially liked the duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, “La ci darem la mano,” “Give me your hand,” a song accompanying seduction. The baritone can begin the passage either in a tender pleading tone, or a more aggressive one; Daniel Belcher’s Don Giovanni exuded confidence without the need to feign much tenderness, and sure enough, before the duet is over, Rachel Copeland’s Zerlina has not only been convinced, she begins aggressively pursuing him, much to both their delight. Ms. Copeland’s coloratura soprano was a revelation both in this piece, and in the Puccini solo, Quando m’en Vo from La Boheme, when she easily leaps to impossible heights.
The second half was even better than the first. First out of the box, the two tenors, Moniz and the dynamic Brett Sprague, slyly turn the vemerable Neopolitan favorite, ‘O sole mio, (made popular almost a century after its writing when Elvis Presley used the tune in “It’s Now or Never”) into a duet and love song between the two men! Tag-teaming and singing together, at first they compete, and then they flirt – complete with Sprague tossing a hanky at Moniz in a wink and nod to the third tenor not in the room, also famous for his rendition of this song, Luciano Pavarotti – and end by asserting that their “love can’t wait!” It’s a delightful spoof on a song that well deserves it.
As baritone Daniel Belcher said, that was a hard act to follow. But follow it he did. His solo was from Rossini’s Cinderella, not just a “comic opera,” but a hilarious one. Rossini adds a new character to the story: a valet to the Prince. The two trade places in order for the Prince to test potential brides to see what woman might love him for himself and not for his title. The valet of course has the time of his life. The piece uses an excess of ornamentation as befits a Prince impersonator, rapid changes from slow and legato to fast and staccato, arpeggios, cadenzas – if it was a pizza it would be “the works!” It ends with a rapid patter song a la Gilbert and Sullivan, sung as an aside directly to the audience. Difficult? Wow. Laugh out loud? Yes! Mr. Belcher also shone in “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, evoking the original version sung by the operatic Ezio Pinza in 1949.
After the last note faded, the singers and pianists, also faculty members and accomplished artists in their own right, came out and mingled with the crowd. It’s as if they were saying to us, “La ci darem la mano:” “Give me your hand.” Come with me and fall in love with opera!” Like Zerlinda, the audience could not help but fall for it, and will not wait to be pursued. We will be in hot pursuit of more opera!
Photos: Steve Roby
Mahalos to HPAF, Genette Freeman, and Penny Pagliaro.
For more info on the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, please visit: http://www.hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org