Stunning. When Rachel Copeland sings, it is stunning. Songs of Hope at Kahilu Theatre last Tuesday was the second concert of HPAF’s (the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival’s) 17th year here in Waimea and did not disappoint. The abbreviated festival concert showcased Dr. Copeland-Skiba, a multi-talented performer, professor, and administrator who has sung at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, with San Diego Opera, and with numerous operas, orchestras, and symphonies in-between, across the nation, as well as internationally. HPAF keeps its commitment to promote the appreciation and advancement of classical music and musical theater, to offer a world-class music training and performance program in the inspirational setting of Hawaii, and to improve the education and elevate the spirit of all who participate, especially the local community.
Copeland chose her musical set by asking her colleagues, professors, mentors, friends, and family, what songs gave them hope. In this season of the COVID pandemic, with months of sequestering in place with so much uncertainty, it was a comforting theme that complements this year’s HPAF title “the Journey BACK.”
Kahilu’s stage was simple, to highlight the beautiful red-headed coloratura soprano, yet glorious with color hues changing perfectly in time to the lyrics throughout each song. Highlights of the first set included “If I” (I shall not live in vain) one of the 4 Emily Dickinson poems set to music by Lori Laitman; “A Horse with Wings” by former Festival composer-in-residence Ricky Ian Gordon; and “Ain’t It A Pretty Night” (from Carlysle’s American Opera in 2 acts, “Susannah”), where Copeland encouraged us to imagine being barefoot and appreciating our beautiful Big Island’s ‘aina (land).
The classical sets interposed between those sung in English were given translation, and the audience was enchanted with Schubert and Strauss (“Strauss was married to a soprano, so he wrote for her!”); Faure and Hahn compositions sung in French. These translations gave hope for the future, the French, hope for romance.
Artistic Director and Founder, Val Underwood, accompanied the soprano on a magnificent Steinway Concert Grand piano, and due to a slight strain (he played 18 accompaniments at Stars of Tomorrow the Thursday before – including many Sondheim arrangements which are challenging), there was a change in the program.
After Underwood played an exquisite Chopin Nocturne, Dr. Copeland sat down at the Steinway and accompanied herself singing 3 Bellini “bel canto” songs. This unexpected delight was like being at a private home soiree and revealed more of her many talents. Indeed, in 2019 Dr. Copeland was the soloist featured at a soiree at a private home in Kohala Ranch. Her ease of charm, voice, and stamina wowed the sold-out audience (especially in the high heat of summer)!
With limited seats available due to COVID protocols, the Kahilu audience was spread out, yet Copeland’s expertise in song made for an intimate ambiance. Just before the last set, she shared with her audience an incredible personal health challenge that required 3 major surgeries in the past 17 months. This HPAF concert singing Songs of Hope was especially meaningful – the first time she had sung a concert in public since March 2020. Her “I Wish it So” by Marc Blitzstein which was suggested by one of Copeland’s former mentors (chair of the voice department at the East Carolina University where she started her academic teaching), and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the (Carousel) were breathlessly anticipated as the crowning glory of the evening, or so we thought!
A standing ovation brought cries of “Hana Hou” (Encore!) from the appreciative audience and Copeland sang “O Mio Babbino Caro” (“O My Dear Papa” from Puccini’s comic, one-act opera, Gianni Schicchi). A magnificent finish for this concert!
In going “green,” the Festival has gone to an online program which you can view at www.hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org. If you missed it, Have Hope! You have the privilege to see it on Kahilu.TV with the annual subscription, which is a tremendous bargain. Until we meet again at the Theatre…A Hui Hou!
About the author: Rona Lee studied theatre arts and film at SUNY Purchase (Conservatory – College of Performing Arts) and Communications at the University of Arizona. She traveled abroad with Up WIth People! (1983-84) and moved to the Big Island from New York in 1990.
Photos: Steve Roby