The old cliché is that “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Hawaii has tons of lemons, and the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF), judging from the opening concert on Monday, July 6, is making a big batch of a unique blend of lemonade that will both wake up your taste buds and fill you with delight. Yes, we cannot see the performances in person; yes, our computers don’t have great sound systems. But those sour notes are made up for by the sweetness of having a free front-row seat, and by getting to know the performer like a new friend through the Q&A after the show in the chatbox.
It was fitting to have Cecilia Violetta Lopez open the season. First, she is a 2011 graduate of HPAF. Second, she went on with only a BA in hand to become a bona fide rising star – she was named one of 25 “Rising Stars” by Opera News. Last but not least, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis caused many organizations including HPAF to think deeply about how they might more consciously address racial inequities. Cecilia, a Mexican American who worked with her immigrant mother in the beet fields of Idaho, exemplifies the talent in communities of color that only need the opportunity to blast off to the moon. I’m proud that HPAF is re-examining and refining its commitment to racial diversity.
To get us comfortable, Cecilia began with the familiar and beloved aria “O mio babbino” from Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi. Those held high notes are always heart stoppers, but I not only had chicken skin, but unexpected tears came down my face, I was so moved by the passion combined with the delicacy of her interpretation. “Prendi” from L’elisir D’amore by Donizetti showcased her vocal control. There are long runs of rapid 16th notes and several soaring cadenzas which she made seem effortless. Because of her ability to convey nuances of emotion and her unobtrusive vibrato, her singing is almost conversational, perfect for opera.
Cecilia sang in her living room with her piano accompanist, and in that bare-bones setting, she was able to demonstrate her talent not just as a singer but also as an actress. Her face and eyes are so expressive; with just her hands and face, she made us understand the characters she was portraying. For example, as Manon from Massenet’s opera, she captures the excitement of the young woman who has just arrived in the city on her first trip away from home; she is so bedazzled she is both crying and laughing at the same time. By illuminating Manon’s youthful naivete with face and voice, Cecilia makes us understand what drives her tragic trajectory. Given a tiny taste of Manon, we can tell that it would be amazing to see her perform the whole opera. What if there was also a set, costumes, an orchestra!
Her last set was special because the selections sprang from her roots. She sang three songs of the early 20th century in the Mexican folk tradition, songs which she heard from her mother as they worked together. Jose Alfredo Jimenez wrote musica ranchera, songs either sung solo or with a guitar; for this music, the piano is less than ideal but we make do with what we have in these COVID times, and her accompanist captured the spirit well. Her final selection, Tato Nacho’s “La Borrachita,” with its lovely, simple melody and intense emotion – it can be sung with over-the-top melodrama, but Cecilia keeps it real – brought tears to her own eyes, as the song brought back childhood memories. These songs gave us a window into her life and into the history of Mexican immigrants.
While Cecilia’s warm, animated, and gracious personality shone through her performance – how many performers do you see affectionately pat their accompanist on the shoulder?! – the question and answer period at the end, moderated by HPAF Executive Director Justin John Moniz and Artistic Director Val Underwood, made us feel like we were all sitting together next to her, soaking in her energy and wisdom. She reminded us that there is science behind the vocal technique and that you must be hyperaware of what’s going on with your “instrument,” and to take good care of it. For students watching, it must have been both inspiring to hear the vocal results of the hard work and practice it took to earn her “rising stardom,” and reassuring to find that she’s a modest person one might have been friends with as a child in rural Idaho.
Thanks to HPAF for the refreshing lemonade, on which we plan to become “borracho” – drunk! – over the next two weeks. Cecilia Violetta Lopez and Monday’s opening night at noon – fantastico!
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos courtesy of CeciliaViolettaLopez.com