Imagine you’re in a cozy little cabaret, maybe in Paris. Sitting at small tables, with the bar open for business, you can look straight into the eyes of the singers performing just feet away from you. Well, the Hilo Palace Theater lobby transported us there for the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival’s “Opera on the Rocks,” one of my favorite musical events of pre-COVID years, and now, finally, back again! This is theater up close and personal, with the resonance of the voices injecting an electric charge into the atmosphere that reverberates to the bone. You don’t just hear the music; you feel it.
The program was like an “opera’s greatest hits.” That made for the audience’s comfort and delight but poses a challenge for the performers. How do you make “Dein ist mein ganzes herz” your own when most Americans know it as “My Heart is All Yours” sung by Frank Sinatra? Tenor and Faculty Artist William Nield Christensen approached it with sweet simplicity, perhaps closer to Franz Lehár’s intent. Or what about “O Sole Mio” sung by everyone from Pavoratti to Elvis to Bugs Bunny? The ensemble turned it into a hilarious competition to see who could add the biggest schmaltzy cadenza.
The opener was my favorite performance of the evening. David Drettwan from the Developing Singers program sang Mozart’s beloved aria “Non piu andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro. The Count discovers that an underling is a rival for the affections of a woman who is the wife of neither one of them, and dispatches him to a regiment far away. Drettwan’s powerful baritone attacked each note separately with military precision, accenting the martial beat while using timing inflections to express the mocking tone. At 22 years old, he’s already got the makings of a star. We’ll be reading soon about his next accomplishments.
I’m partial to mezzo-sopranos and to Paulina Villarreal, Faculty Artist, in particular. She loves to wear red, which suits the persona of the characters she inhabits – like the seductress Carmen. Villarreal’s “Habañera” was a sultry come-on, subtly modulating between recklessness, confidence, and a hint of sadness. She made us want to follow her right off the stage.
Sabina Balsamo and Ciara Emily Newman, both Artistic Administration Interns and sopranos, appropriately sang from roles for young women. Balsamo conveyed sweet innocence in her performance from The Marriage of Figaro.“Czárdás” from Die Fledermaus, is a Hungarian dance with a slow beginning and a second fast section that is light and playful. Newman navigated the octave jumps and the trills with ease, and she walloped the high notes. Her ability to portray her character was marvelous: even with all the vocal gymnastics to manage, her portrayal of a fun-loving, somewhat naughty girl was so natural that she didn’t seem to be acting.
The piano accompanists, Val Underwood and Maika’i Nash, deserve their own kudos. I especially loved Carlos Guastavino’s “The Rose and the Willow,” a song of such pure melody that one section doesn’t even have words. Jennifer McGregor sang it with exquisite tenderness, and since Guastavino also composed for piano, it was more like a voice/piano duet.
“To elevate the spirit of all who participate” is part of the stated mission of the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival. Mission accomplished! At the end of the evening, our spirits were sky-high. The good news is that there will be HPAF Friday evening performances at the Palace for the rest of the month. You’ve got to be there to see/hear/feel it for yourself!
About the author: 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: Steve Roby
Performance date: 01/July/2022
A full calendar of HPAF events and tickets for all events are available by visiting https://hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/. Tickets for Kahilu Theatre events may be purchased at https://kahilutheatre.org/ or via phone at (808) 885-6868.