Great opera on a tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean where cows outnumber people? Sounds unlikely – but it’s true! For a month in the summer, the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF) takes up residence (and residences since the singers live with local families) in Waimea.
This year, over 40 of the most talented young singers from across the country are here for an opportunity that will help them launch their musical careers in opera and musical theater. It’s not a matter of bringing whomever can pay. Since HPAF had a remarkable $90,000 in its scholarship fund this year, it’s a matter of bringing the best. The “Developing Singers,” in college or recently graduated and already performing, must audition for a role in several planned productions, two operas and a musical. All of them already have had numerous performances under their belts in productions staged at their colleges, Universities and communities; several have won competitions. They’re from Utah, Illinois, California, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Hawaii and more – even from China and Mexico!
Twenty of them, those who will be performing next week in Benjamin Britten’s opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, were showcased in an informal performance at Cafe Il Mondo in Honoka’a, where we enjoyed drinks, pupus, and the hospitality of the staff while listening. With a nod to the 4th of July, a variety of songs from several generations of popular American composers of musicals and/or blues filled the room: Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, and others.
Many of these songs posed a difficulty, since we know them from other already famous singers. Do you try to reproduce those familiar versions, or strike out on your own? Ryan Findley sang “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot, which some of us remember Robert Goulet performing in the original cast, and HPAF faculty member James Harrington in Hollywood Hits just last week! Ryan can hope to rival those others under the tutelage of Harrington. Alex Rossell tackled Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand; her smooth and mellow mezzo-soprano did the song justice. I loved Johnny Mathis singing“Misty;” Nicholas Music gave a wonderfully jazzy rendition, with good pacing and embellishments that were not obtrusive; I didn’t miss Johnny.
To sing these songs requires theatrical skill as well as a beautiful voice. Madalyn Walters, in Gershwin’s “The Man I love” was sweetly expressive; Katherine Gneiting in “All the Things You Are” performed with believable emotion without over-dramatization. Tenor Jordan Davidson had dramatic flair in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” and his duo with Erik Hood in “Lily’s Eyes” was an audience favorite; the power and drama of Hood’s voice stood out among the crowd. I have to give a shout out to bass-baritone Yulong Zhang whose humorous choice was “On a Slow Boat to China,” and to Mexican baritone Andres Lopez Romero who gave us a nostalgic rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer.” They both had the additional challenge of learning words and styles of music not in their first language/culture.
We may not have huge firework displays in Honoka’a or Waimea on the 4th of July, but we were treated to a dazzling explosion of musical talent. For an island afternoon, we were transported, “Lost in the Stars” (sung by Patrick Wilhelm) of tomorrow.
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