Ho'okani hana keaka: a History of Opera in Hawaii

By Janos Gereben
© 1973, 1999

This is a bit of history twice misplaced.

First, there was opera going way back in the history of the remote kingdom in middle of the Pacific, but by mid-20th century, most of it was forgotten.

Then in 1973, while studying at the University of Hawaii's American Studies Department, I did some research, started a draft on the subject ... and lost the paper when I moved to the Mainland.

This fall, while visiting the Islands again, Beebe Freitas of the Hawaii Opera Theater (H.O.T.) reminded me of a copy I left there 25 years ago; H.O.T. general manager Henry Akina was kind enough to dig it up and return the copy to me. Lucinda Hughes helped to edit the scanned pages.

Again, the text is from 1973, but there will be an updated appendix - as of 1999 - of all known documented performances in Hawaii. Unfortunately, a handsome list of very academic footnotes is lost forever, but I hope the rest of the material will be helpful in preserving as much of the history of opera in Hawaii as possible.

The Roots

The current high level of this country's interest in opera - hundreds of opera companies giving thousands of performances annually - is the result of a long-range process, growing out of community efforts of many decades. The same holds true for Hawaii.

There was opera in New Orleans as early as 1791. Similarly, today's 8,000-plus audiences for Honolulu opera productions started forming more than a century ago.

The royal family of the Kingdom of Hawaii attended opera in Honolulu in the 1850's. An appendix to this report lists 219 opera performances that took place in Honolulu between 1854 and 1973. This is a partial list that includes only fully-staged, complete works and excludes - naturally - the many performances that we don't have a record of today, also omitting Gilbert and Sullivan productions, special Island favorites of which there were many hundreds throughout the years.

Opera in Hawaii today means subscription performances in the Concert Hall, produced by the Honolulu Symphony and the Hawaii Opera Theater. The first such symphony-sponsored opera performance, of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, took place in 1961.

From that point on, the Symphony, later the Honolulu Opera Theater and eventually the Hawaii Opera Theater have produced a continuous line of opera seasons, starting with one work and expanding to three performances each of three operas by the 1973-74 season, the annual attendance growing from 1,000 to nearly 20,000.

When "Modern Opera" Began

Opera, in the sense of the history of H.O.T., is 13 years old now in the Islands. But the topic of this report is the period before that, the history of opera in Hawaii from the 1850s until that 1961 Butterfly.

Those opera concerts in the 1850s are really just the first that we know. It is likely that opera recitals were offered as early as 1847 when Honolulu's first theater - the Thespian, on the corner of Maunakea and King - opened. But the first dated evidence is a playbill found in the Hawaii State Archives about a performance of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment on Feb. 11, 1854, in the Varieties Theater by a traveling company - not identified, unfortunately.

According to other playbills, a Mrs. Fiddes gave two recitals of songs and opera arias in the Court House on May 4 and June 16, 1854. On July 25 of the same year, Cathrine Hayes sang from the works of Thomas, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini in the Court House, with tickets selling at the extravagant price of $3.

There followed recitals by traveling companies with large repertories; of locally produced Gilbert and Sullivan works from the 1880s on; daily opera performances in the 1890s; big, colorfully staged productions in the 1910s, and so on.

Plans were often big, reality smaller, but there was opera, lots of it, in Hawaii through the decades. It came in spurts, it started and stopped.

There were dozens of articles in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin alone about the locally-produced "opera season" of two works in 1928-29. The next article about opera appeared six years later. In fact, I could find only five brief articles on the subject during the 23 years after 1929 (there was a war going on, of course).

Opera as Volcano

"Opera in Honolulu has been like Hawaii's volcanoes. Historically it has burst into brilliant displays, then lapsed into periods of sleep," observed C. J. Walker who wrote extensively on the subject in the 1950s and '60s.

In this 1962 article, Walker saw a new, more permanent future for opera, "flying in the face of a Honolulu tradition more than 100 years old, a time which has seen surges of serious singing end as tragically as one of the well-known Italian operas."

Quoting Marshall Turkin, manager of the Honolulu Symphony in the early 1960s, Walker attributed "the sudden change ... the growing popular support for opera" to "a general wave of interest in all things cultural ... more leisure time ... the tremendous boom in home hi-fi and stereo equipment leading to a sophistication in musical taste."

Looking at the high expectations of the period from a vantage point of a dozen years (in 1973), it is clear that opera - along with just about everything else on the cultural front in Hawaii and in the rest of America -- did not blossom suddenly to fit into the new Golden Age predicted by social scientists in the late 1950s.

There was not then and there is not now a leisure society turning full-time to things cultural out of necessity - to cope with the boredom resulting from a 20-hour work week. No, the Walker-Turkin expectation of "the sound of song shaming the flaming mountains by hitting continuous high notes" didn't quite work out, not yet, anyway.

But something did happen in the 1960s. Opera became a permanent fixture in Honolulu. In all the highs and lows of opera, there has never been the kind of reliable regularity opera seasons offer today.

There was certainly no regularity of operatic events nor a reliable, sizable audience for them at the beginning, in the middle of the 19th century. Small groups of people, consisting of the families and friends of aspiring artists and a few who have traveled to the U.S. or Europe, supported "cultural events," such as they were.

Theater Led the Way

Theater came first, with the Thespian in 1847, then soon after that, with the opening of a more substantial structure, the Royal Hawaiian Theater which opened on June 17, 1848, on the corner of Hotel and Alakea streets. The Royal had a long and eventful history. It was visited by many traveling American theater companies - Edwin Booth played there in 1852 - but the beginning was difficult.

Thelma Coile Brown, in her study of the period, says that seasons were short because there were not enough regular patrons in Honolulu after the announcement of the discovery of gold in California. The theater was opened and closed several times, with different lessees and managers. She goes on to give a report (by an unidentified person) from the period about Honolulu's pre-opera, theatrical entertainment situation in the 1850s:

Churchgoing was not the only amusement cultivated in Honolulu. Whenever an English man-of-war cast anchor in the harbor, there were games of cricket, along with racing in sacks, climbing of greased poles, and whatnot on the plains.

After a time, there grew up near the palace, a theater or 'Jackhouse' as it was called by the natives where in the shipping season wandering barnstormers and circumnavigating clowns performed their antics to the intense delight of sympathetic beachcombers and their aboriginal friends.

Clowns, beaches and all, the Royal got competition by 1853, when the Varieties Theater opened on King Street. And, right alongside the greased poles, there was opera as part of some entertainment events in both theaters.

For example, playbills in the State Archives indicate the following to have taken place in the Varieties:

Anna Bishop of the "Bird-Like Voice"

There were also recitals during these years, in private homes, in the Court House and elsewhere. Mrs. Brown, for example, mentions the 1857 appearances of Anna Bishop, a famous New York singer, "a sensation with her bird-like voice," and what a shrewd program arranger she was "for her first concert was made up of popular songs and ballads which all would be certain to enjoy."

Once thus enchanted, the audience was then treated to the presumably less enjoyable performance of arias from Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Bellini's Norma, and the ever-popular "Martha.

Besides song and opera recitals in 1854 by Mrs. Fiddes and Cathrine Hayes, as mentioned above, 1855 saw a joint recital in the Court House on Nov. 30 by Madame Avalos and Madame Austin, performing works by Auber, Donizetti, Rossini and others.

(The two ladies solved their billing problem rather ingeniously: Madame Avalos got her name on the top, but without anything next to the name. The other singer appeared further down on the playbill, but was described as "the celebrated Madame-Austin." Protocol seemed to have worked smoother in 1855 than it does more than a century later.)

In 1862, a Signor Bianchi, "director of the Italian Opera, San Francisco and Australia," gave a series of opera performances in the Royal with a small group. In a remarkable feat of dramatic press agentry, Bianchi combined two standard come-on bits - "Positively the Last Night!" and "Benefit!" even if the latter was for his own wife, Signora Bianchi, perhaps a hardship case - with something truly novel.

On the poster advertising the April 7, 1862, performance of Verdi's "Ernani" - "In Full Costume!" - Bianchi stated:

At the request of several influential inhabitants, Captain Heustis has kindly postponed the departure of the Iconium till Tuesday next; Sig. BIANCHI will therefore avail himself of the opportunity to give one more POSITIVELY THE LAST Entertainment, being a COMPLIMENTARY BENEFIT, to Signora Bianchi.

Was the ship's departure postponed to make this "positively the last" performance possible? Were the "influential inhabitants" using their influence on behalf of getting just one more Entertainment? The poster doesn't say. But, somehow, the intimation is there. Signor and Signora Bianchi, "Fraulein Hermann, Signor Grossi and Mr. Gregg" joined as "the entire company" for the finale of Verdi's Nabucco at the end of the positively-last show.

The First Really Big Show

The first large-scale opera event in Hawaii took place in 1871 with a six-week visit by Agatha States' opera company in October and November. Kamehameha V attended the States company's premiere performance in the Royal, an evening of selections from a number of operas. The king returned for a performance of Ernani and, later, of The Barber of Seville.

Full, costumed performances of Verdi's Il Trovatore, Gounod's Faust, Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor were presented, along with other favorites of the period. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser followed the progress of the States company throughout its Hawaii performances at first, just doing promotional writing, but later engaging in cautious criticism:

The lovers of really good music will be glad to know that Honolulu is to be treated to the Opera. Madame Agatha States, who with her company has been delighting the Californians for several months past, arrived in the steamer last week, and will remain here over one trip previous to visiting Australia.

The season will open on Tuesday evening next at the Theatre, with selections from the popular opera 'Ernani,' under the patronage of His Majesty the King. The worldwide celebrity which Madame States has attained is a sufficient guarantee that our little theatre will be filled with an appreciative audience - for the opportunity does not often occur at these islands to hear first-class opera.

The Theatre was well filled last Thursday evening with a brilliant and appreciative audience, who welcomed the re-appearances of the Opera Troupe with much satisfaction. The selections from 'Lucia of Lammermoor' were well made, and in spite of the disadvantage resulting from the necessary omission of many scenes and incidents, the sad story of 'Lucia' was clearly rendered.

In the Grand Scena and Duet, as well as the Rondo, Madame States was particularly pleasing; while Signor Orlandini in 'Ah non avera,' and Signors Susini in 'Cessi ah Cessi,' and Cechi in the 'Finale' won many plaudits from the audience. The opera of 'Il Trovatore' is announced forth-night, and with its many beautiful arias cannot fail to give satisfaction.

We understand that the chorus in the 'Miserere' will be given by a number of young Hawaiians who have been under the instruction of Maestro Glorza, the Director.

Madame States' Opera Troupe have delighted full audiences at the Theatre during the past week with renderings of the operas of 'Il Trovatore,' 'Faust' and the 'Ballo in Maschera,' besides some gems from other well known operas. We are disposed to think that the voices of all the members of the Troupe are managed better now, with reference to the space required to be filled in our pretty little Theatre, than they were upon the first two nights.

The performance of 'Il Trovatore' on last Saturday evening was so much of a success as to call for a repetition of the Finale on last Thursday. The music in Faust is not of the kind to catch the popular ear at once, but pleases more and discloses new beauties upon each repetition. Tonight the Sicilian Vespers will be given, and on Monday the Barber of Seville, and we anticipate much pleasure from the performance of these sparkling compositions.

Madame States returned in 1872, but the troupe's second performance was canceled when Kamehameha V died on Dec. 11.

Enter Capt. Berger

The same year - 1872 - was crucially important in the history of opera and all European music in Hawaii. It was in 1872 that Capt. Henri Berger, then 28, arrived in the Islands.

For the next-half a century, the Berlin-born bandmaster led the Royal Hawaiian Military Band, which became the mainstay of classical and semi-classical music in the Islands.

Berger died in 1929, but his influence extended well into the 1940s when the band still continued to give memorial concerts every Aug. 4, Berger's birthday.

From 1872 until his retirement in 1915, Berger led the band in introducing the music of Weber, Schubert, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Mozart and all the Strausses to Hawaii.

The German repertoire was further boosted with the annual band concerts on March 22 for the birthday of the Emperor.

And, throughout the years, band concerts at Emma Square, in the parks, at the Court House and everywhere where music could be played, featured the works of Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Balfe (whose now-forgotten Bohemian Girl was the operatic rage of many decades) in addition to the Teutonic offering - plus French opera, Viennese waltzes, Prussian marches and - eventually - Souza's music.

Finding Performance Spaces

There were many places in Honolulu by the end of the 19th century for playing music. In addition to the Royal Hawaiian Theater, there was the New Concert Hall at King and Nuuanu, the Court House, Kawaiahao Church and many other settings for concerts.

Churches became recital halls as shown, for example, by a playbill in the Archives for June 29, 1875, when "Mlle Ilma de Murszka, the Famous Hungarian Nightingale" presented a "Grand Concert" at Kawaiahao Church, singing excerpts from Verdi's Attila, Bellini's Sonnambula and Donizetti operas.

Some of the auditoriums closed and reopened, received new owners or names. The structure referred to in 1879 as Honolulu Music Hall became "Hawaiian Opera House," "The Music Hall," and "Royal Opera House" within a few years.

Thrum's 1885 Hawaiian Almanac, for example, has an ad for "The Honolulu Music Hall, erected in 1879, at a cost of $40,000 ... It resembles to a great extent the Bush Street Theatre of San Francisco and has a seating capacity of 800 with room for loose chairs to seat 250..."

Royal Support

The 1886 Almanac repeated the text of the 1885 ad, except for the Royal Opera House - indicating new name, new management. The fourth quarter of the 19th century was the era of King Kalakaua and the royal family, musically inclined, supported and sponsored many operatic events throughout the years.

For example, the Little Church in Waikiki was struck by lightning in 1876, and Princess Likelike and Princess Liliuokalani sponsored a series of benefit musical events for the rebuilding of the church.

During the 1880s, Honolulu's own famous singer, Mary A. Cooke, known on the stage as Annis Montague, stopped in Hawaii on a number of occasions between engagements in the United States and in Australia.

She gave recitals sponsored by the Honolulu Amateur Musical-Society, a group organized in 1858 and reorganized in 1878 when it presented Haydn's Creation.

Another group, the Honolulu Amateur Dramatic Club, began productions of Gilbert and Sullivan works and presented H. M. S. Pinafore in 1881 and Trial by Jury the next year.

Henri Berger was musical director and the Dramatic Club presentations included excerpts from operas in addition to the musical presented - there were scenes performed from Daughter of the Regiment, Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers, and others.

In 1885, Annis Montague gave a series of concerts, including selections from Trovatore and Lucia in costume.

Later that year, Signor Farini's opera company arrived to give a series of staged scenes from Trovatore, Faust and Martha.

Grand Society Concerts

By 1886, music left the area of "greased poles and what-not on the planes" and became fully owned by the white, wealthy segment of the society - so much so that the major musical events were even called Grand Society Concerts.

Evidently, the only "local" participation in the concerts came from the royal family.

The series in 1886 was quite extensive, featuring both instrumentalists in piano and violin recitals and singers in the performances of songs, arias and even costumed opera selections.

Enrico Campobello from London and May Mitchell Spring from California were retained by the group for opera projects.

"It is proposed to give five concerts for which a subscription of $10 is asked," the announcement said. "These concerts are under the management of Signor Campobello and will be given only in case a subscription of $2,000 is raised."

In April, 1886, the series did open (although apparently the subscription goal was not met) and both King Kalakaua and John O. Dominis, governor of Oahu, attended.

A Bouquet from the King

At the second Campobello concert the King was again present, but the audience was "disappointingly small." The third concert played to a larger audience and the King and Princess Liliuokalani occupied the Royal Box.

A matinee with selections from Donizetti's Don Pasquale in costume was especially recommended for children, and the last concert was given in May with Kalakaua presenting a "beautiful bouquet" to Campobello.

Considering that these concerts coincided with the great Wing Wo Tai fire of April 18,1886, perhaps the noteworthy thing was not the poor attendance, but rather that there was an audience at all.

There were full houses in the Hawaii Opera House for the four performances of the Mikado in 1890.

"Set in Japanese style... presented by local talent," the production once again underlined the all-haole nature of the opera world in the Islands of this period.

Opera by and for Haoles Only

In 1890, the population of the Hawaiian Kingdom was 89,990, with native Hawaiians (and part-Hawaiians) still in the majority (34,000 and about 20,000), followed by Chinese and Japanese (15,300 and 12,300), and Portuguese (8,600) - and a rather small white minority, including 1,900 Americans and 1,300 Britishers.

Two-thirds of the population lived outside Honolulu, but almost all the Caucasians were residents of the city and they formed the influential minority which acted as both producers and consumers of such European-type entertainment as opera.

Although there were more Japanese in the Islands by this time than English and Americans and the 1890 Mikado production had a Japanese setting, the cast consisted of: Monteagle, Hoogs, Bishop, Lewers, Widemann, Nolte, Bowler, Lishman, Dimond, Monsarrat, Brown.

Besides reading like a street directory of present-day Honolulu, the cast also excluded any non-haoles, judging by the names.

Apart from that, six separate newspaper accounts of the Mikado hailed it as "magnificent ... with handsome stage settings, enthusiastic audiences... crowded houses" and so on.

Besides Gilbert and Sullivan, the period also offered selections from Trovatore, Rigoletto and Faust - all in 1885 - and Don Pasquale in 1886.

In addition, there were many recitals, Berger's band gave weekly concerts, and there were benefit events, such as the 1900 "Lepers' Merry Xmas Fund" concert in the Opera House and music bloomin' out all over.

First Wagner ... with Liliuokalani

In 1891, the New York Bijou Company visited Honolulu to perform Trovatore on March 7, followed by a lengthy season of Martha, Faust, Bizet's Carmen, Bellini's Norma, Auber's Fra Diavolo, among others, plus the Islands' first complete Wagner, The Flying Dutchman - which, 80 years later, also became the first Wagner to be produced by the Hawaii Opera Theater.

On opening night in 1891, "an exceedingly large and fashionable audience greeted the company." Queen Liliuokalani occupied the Royal Box and Trovatore was "given in excellent style."

Trovatore was given twice more, followed by Faust (which seems to have gained acceptance in the two decades since the 1871 puzzle over Gounod's difficult-to-catch melodies) and two performances of Rigoletto.

The ever-popular Martha was followed by Lucia, which brought a press comment that "it appears rather too somber and tragic to please the Honolulu Audience whose hearts turn to the light opera."

Navy Chorus

Accordingly, the company closed its Honolulu run with H.M.S. Pinafore, with sailors and marines from the USS Iroquois appearing in chorus roles.

The U.S. Navy has long served as an important supplier of artistic talent. In 1893, for example, a planned production of The Gondoliers was canceled when the USS Hyacinth was ordered to sea with three of the ship's officers in the play's leading roles and no substitutes for them anywhere.

Honolulu remained a steamer stopping point between the United States and Australia. Many a seasick artist paused in the Islands for a concert or two, on both crossings.

For example, in 1892, Annie Louise Tanner, the "American Nightingale," gave four concerts in Hawaii in May, on her way to Australia, and a recital in October, on her way back.

The New Hawaiian Opera House

Basically, however, the years between the Bijou company's 1891 visit and the 1896 opening of the New Hawaiian Opera House were on the lean side.

The new theater, at King and Richards, was a large and handsome one. It was built by W. G. Irwin and the Spreckels Brothers of San Francisco.

The New Hawaiian Opera House seated 666 in the orchestra, 300 in the gallery, and had an additional capacity for 250 seats to be placed in the isles and in the back of the theater.

"Full house" at the new Opera House meant more than 1,000 - a substantial figure.

On Nov. 7, 1896, it was a full house for an all-local, all-haole Trovatore with Annis Montague as both Leonore and the director, William Lewers as Manrico, R.C. Monteagle as the Count, and Mrs. W. W. Dimond as Azucena.

Capt. Berger conducted the orchestra described simply as "musicians of Honolulu," and, according to the beautiful program printed on white silk, "Mr. Paul R. Isenberg has kindly consented to sing the Serenade behind the scenes and in the Miserere."

There were many plans for opera at the new house, even one for a whole season to be given by the famous Tivoli Company of San Francisco, but nothing actually happened until 1899.

The Boston Lyric

The 80-member Boston Lyric Opera Company came to the Islands that year and opened a seven-week season on Oct. 31.

The Boston was a well-traveled company, specializing in light opera and operetta, but also presenting the grand-opera favorites of the day.

Among the latter were the ever-present Trovatore, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Sonnambula, Carmen (with the company's two featured prima donnas, Josephine Stanton in the title role, and Nellie Andrews as Micaela), Faust, with Annis Montague-Turner representing local colors as Marguerite and the Hawaiian Band appearing as part of the soldiers' chorus.

With Faust, grand opera, size-wise, finally arrived in Hawaii as 70 people crowded onto the stage, "more than had ever appeared together in a local theater before," and the work was repeated for a children's matinee on a Saturday, a veritable parade with the band and all.

There were also lighter offerings, such as Martha, Fra Diavolo and The Bohemian Girl.

But the bulk of the Boston's programs were musicals and with them the company made a major contribution to the popularization of musical theater in Hawaii.

Lighter Fare

Gilbert and Sullivan reigned supreme - Pirates of Penzance, Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, Trial by Jury - and there were a lot of others, mostly unknown by now:

Stahl's Said Pasha, Offenbach's La Belle Helene and The Princess of Trebizonde, Wallace's Maritana, Audran's The Mascotte and Olivette, Varney's The Musketeers, Jakobowski's Erminie, Suppe's Boccaccio, Planquette's Chimes of Normandy, Johann Strauss's The Merry War and Czibulka's Amorita.

When the Boston company's scheduled run at the Opera House was to end on Christmas Day, 1899, Honolulu just had to have more operas and musicals. The company moved into the Orpheum Theater for a four-week extension of the tour, a rather lengthy encore, indicating that there was a ready audience for musical drama.

And so, during January, 1900, the Orpheum provided daily opera fare, ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan to Trovatore, Martha, and Cavalleria Rusticana.

But even that wasn't enough - the turned-on audience and the Orpheum management sought for and soon found another company. By May, 1900, there was another opera season in Honolulu.

It was the Southwell Opera Company, with a cast of 36, and a repertoire including The Bohemian Girl, Fra Diavolo, Carmen, Chimes of Normandy, and Cavalleria again.

In addition, the Southwell season of about six weeks offered Millocker's The Beggar Student, Offenbach's The Grand Duchess and Strauss's The Queen's Lace Handkerchief.

Hiatus Before the Great War

And then, after multiple performances of 30 different opera productions in 1899-90, there was silence - one of those long down periods of the up-and-down history of opera in Hawaii.

A study of theater in the Islands between 1900 and 1910 doesn't even mention opera.

When finally there was opera again, in 1913, it came after such a long pause that the Advertiser declared the visit of the Lambardi Company then "the first opera troupe here in 22 years," going all the way back to the 1891 Bijou tour, and quite forgetting Boston and Southwell and their combined offering of more than three months of opera.

Although not 22 years, the break was long enough - an even dozen years. The Lambardi Grand Opera Company arrived on the Sierra on March 3, 1913, and opened the same evening in the Opera House with Rigoletto.

The Lambardi

Members of the company, which traveled with a 15-piece orchestra, included Madame Adaberto, who had sung with the Metropolitan the previous season; Blanche Hamilton Fox, a mezzo who had sung with the National Grand Opera Company; Guiseppe (not Giuseppe) Agostini, who had created the role of Rodolfo in La Boheme; Eugenio de Folco, who had come from La Scala; and Francesco Nicoletti, chosen to create the role of John the Baptist in Salome by Richard Strauss.

The Lambardi was some company - possibly the best of all the groups visiting Hawaii.

The reviews, as might be expected, were good, but there was one comment, somewhat out of the blue, from a newspaper which took issue with the timing of the Lambardi's season:

Honolulu, musically starved because of its isolation, offers a rare field for musical aggregations unable to count upon a successful season during Lent on the Mainland, where the habit of observing this annual quiet time is growing so fast. Sooner or later what has happened the past month was certain to take place.

The Lambardi Grand Opera Company chanced to be the first to seize the opportunity clearly set before it by our public-spirited fellow citizen, Mr. W. D. Adams. Hence the coming of these music purveyors was greeted with overwhelming welcome and the three weeks of grand opera has netted the company and promoter, if not a well-earned financial reward, experience that will be of future value and encouragement sufficient to lead them to try it again.

Meantime, Honolulu has greatly enjoyed a musical treat of a high order. Unfortunately, our society leaders have not yet seriously turned their thoughts toward the question of the hygienic value of an annual rest season during Lent. Hence the opera was super- imposed upon the usual round of social functions, which seemed not a jot reduced to make way for it. The Legislative session introduced a still greater congestion of interests ... The effect has been nervous exhaustion. The month of March has been altogether too strenuous.

Perhaps another year we may have in Honolulu more respite from social functions, and it may be that if grand opera or some such recreative feature is regularly to characterize Lent because Honolulu, by reason of its geographic situation, must take the best in music or drama when it can get it, those who promote these entertainments may leave Lent free.

The Lambardi's program consisted of opera proper, quite unlike previous groups which brought an even mix of opera and musicals.

The troupe offered Verdi - Rigoletto, Trovatore, Aida and Traviata - and introduced Puccini to Hawaii, with Tosca, Madame Butterfly (which was to become the No. 1 favorite for many years to follow) and Boheme. There were also some good French offerings from the heavily Italian company: Carmen, Faust and Massenet's Thais.

Giordano's Andrea Chenier and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci were performed in Hawaii for the first time, along with such old-time favorites as Lucia, Barber of Seville and Cavalleria Rusticana.

Two years later (and during Lent again, "The Friend" notwithstanding), the Bevani Grand Opera Company came to Honolulu for a one-month stand at the Bijou, fairly repeating the Lambardi repertoire.

Bevani opened with Lucia on April 15, 1915, featuring Emilia Vergari, Hazel Sanborn, Bernice Holmes and Sig. Giovacchini.

Once again in the midst of an operatic peak period, the city received the visit of another touring company, the De Folco, just eight months after the end of the Bevani season, opening on Jan. 17, 1916.

The head of the company, Eugenio de Folco, a tenor who appeared in Honolulu in 1913 with the Lambardi company, gave two recitals at the Opera House in December, 1915, and then brought the company from San Francisco aboard the Great Northern.

The visiting group (also known later as the Benson Opera company, included Vivian Kingston, an American coloratura who had made her debut in Rome; Johanna Kristoffy, an Austrian prima donna; Joaquin Wanrell, Miss Holmes from the Bevani company - and a chorus, an orchestra of 20 and even a corps de ballet.

The De Folco repertoire was once again Verdi and Puccini, but with some important Hawaii premieres: Otello, Wagner's Lohengrin and Ponchielli's La Gioconda.

The De Folco-Benson company ended its run in the Opera House on Feb. 12, 1916, and opened another tour in just two weeks' time at the Bijou.

Meanwhile, the Opera House itself was readied for the end of its run - it was demolished in 1917 to make way for the Federal Building.

One of the many eulogies for the building said:

It is historical. It is ugly. It is like a box with a few touches of ornament to make it look unlike a box. So much for the outside. On the inside, it is as cozy and comfortable as anyone could desire.

The demise of the Opera House, which once saw the visit of such operatic greats as Madame Emma Calve (Feb. 13, 15 and 16, 1911) and John McCormack (Jan. 17, 1914), now left the Bijou as the only theater in Honolulu suitable for musical theater.

The Bijou opened in 1910, its claim to fame made quickly by the appearance of John Philip Souza and his band on Sept. 12, 1911.

The difference between the Opera House and the Bijou (McCormack vs. Souza) was prophetic in forecasting another long period of little or no opera.

Forty Years in the Wilderness

The 1916 De Folco visit signaled both the last use of the Opera House and the end of an era of traveling opera companies.

Instead of the more than 80 full-scale opera performances during just four years (1913-16), there were less than a dozen during the next 40 - mostly small-scale, "local" productions.

By 1923, Charles E. Banks was despairing enough of the "uncivilized" Island situation to write: "Opera is 'high brow' stuff. Sugar and pines and bananas, of course, but art in Hawaii, pish, pish, and tush, tush. It can't be did. Get thee to a cannery."

Another way of expressing frustration was utopian fantasy and none of that was more grandiose than Lorrin A. Thurston's 1927 article, "Hawaii as a Center of Music - a Vision."

Thurston's Grand Vision

He suggested construction of a huge opera house with several small halls and studios, in addition to a 10,000-seat main auditorium, for the year-around performances of "the best European and American music ... along with orchestras of Hawaiian guitars, uke, flutes, bass.... a Filipino orchestra with its peculiar, weird and fascinating effects ... Spanish, Portuguese and Russian groups..."

The regular programs of the big cultural center were also to include "a Japanese and Chinese orchestra (although) many of us do not care for this type of music, but this is a cosmopolitan community and all tastes must be considered."

Honolulu, Thurston suggested, "will become one of the world musical focal points and share with New York, Paris, Vienna, Beirut (sic) and Berlin the reputation of being a place where music at its best can be heard, or the added fame that nowhere else in the world can such variety of music be found."

To accomplish this, he proposed "an annual musical festival lasting for a week, in the great music hall of the Central Building (of the Opera House complex), accommodating an orchestra of 250 instruments and a chorus of 2,500 persons, with a seating capacity for an audience of 6,000, the building to be constructed on the unit plan, so that later it can be expanded to seat an audience of 10,000."

Instead of all that, what Honolulu did get - a year after Thurston's article - was McKinley High School auditorium, a somewhat smaller, but pleasant enough place that was to serve as the home of major concerts and opera productions all the way to the 1964 opening of the Concert Hall in the Honolulu International Center.

The First "Permanent" Company

The same year, 1928, saw the opening of two new school auditoriums: McKinley and Punahou's Dillingham Hall.

The opening of large auditoriums and 12 whole years of going without opera were the two major causes of the organization of Hawaii's first "permanent" opera group that year.

"With a large number of Honolulu people enthusiastically approving the idea, plans for the establishment of what might be called 'civic opera' in Honolulu are now being made by Milton Seymour, well-known Honolulu music teacher," said the first report in the Star-Bulletin, the writer managing to get "Honolulu" into the lead sentence three times.

The story mentioned the recent completion of McKinley Auditorium as one of the reasons for getting started on the enterprise.

Martha was chosen for the first production "not only because of its popularity, but because it readily adapts itself to production by amateurs, both in principal parts and the chorus."

Seymour announced that he "did not look on this as a money-making enterprise and that he and others would be satisfied if it paid expenses."

Mrs. Edna B. Lawson, in charge of stage direction, had to her credit the direction of The Yellow Jacket with the Chinese Students' Alliance, and Seymour's quoted background included direction of the Chimes of Normandy put on by the Shriners and Patience produced by the University of Hawaii's Quill Club.

Proliferaton of the Ethnic Base

A long list of sponsors for the yet-unnamed organization was published in July, including the name of Gov. Wallace R. Farrington and only one non-haole name, that of the Rev. Akaiko Akana.

Almost as if to make up for that, another list published in a month's time, consisted of the following: T. Fukichi, S. Harada, Y. Soga, Lee Ong, C.Q. Yee Hop, Lum Yip Kee, C.K. Ai, C.S. Wo, Tong A. Hung.

On Aug. 28, 1928, organization of a "Honolulu Opera Club" was completed at the Territorial Normal School and, in spite of the late additions to the board, all the officers and directors turned out to be uniformly haole, judging by their names.

The organization decided on a monthly membership cost of $1, pledging with great seriousness that "any excess proceeds over production cost will "be used to provide a music library and other permanent assets and facilities." Well, it's been a long time since they had opera in Hawaii.

On Sept. 14, the Honolulu Opera Association - as it was eventually called - announced the dates of its first production (Martha on Dec. 7 and 8) and the Star-Bulletin commented:

This is a new venture among Honolulu musicians, and is believed to be the first opera company organized in this city. It presents a field for the display of local musical talent and looks forward to cooperation with singers who may visit Hawaii.

There was a great and continuing emphasis on the fiscal responsibility and reliability of HOA, right from the beginning, with somewhat obscure references to lack of the same in musical and entertainment organizations of the past. For example:

Organized and operated upon a strictly business-like and yet non-profit making basis, the (Hawaii Opera) association offers an opportunity to the whole community to become familiar with the works not only of the great masters of music but with later and more generally known productions at prices that will be within the reach of the most modest purse.

In the preliminary organization work of the association, it was admitted that the cause of disappointment in former ventures along this line was the absence of a purely business directorate, accustomed to handling the financial details that are necessary in the successful staging of opera, operetta and musical plays. With this in mind, a board of directors consisting of men and women of high standing in the community was nominated and appointed, under the presidency of William H. Popert of the United States Steel Products company ...

The directors are anxious to make known the fact that the organization will operate upon a strictly non-profit basis. A rigid budget for each production is compiled and all unnecessary expenses are eliminated ... Pledges need not be paid in advance.

The production, said the same article, will use 60 singers, it will be given in Dillingham Hall, "if completed in time," and ticket prices were set at $2, $1.50 and $1.

The Vis-Norton Era

In October, 1928, the first of many "communications to the editor" by I.W. de Vis-Norton was printed in the papers. Vis-Norton was HOA's recording secretary and resident PR genius. Through releases, letters to the editor, rumors, disclaimers of rumors and, eventually, in bylined articles, Vis-Norton sold opera and sold and sold ...

This was the first of a series:

In order to set at rest many rumors that have gained credence, and also in reply to various inquiries, I ask the courtesy of your columns for an explanation...

The letter then made the following points:

  1. The purpose of the organization is "to provide high-grade opera, operetta and musical plays at prices that will be easily within the reach of everyone.
  2. None of the directors or officers get paid.
  3. Members of the chorus not only give their services, but are paying monthly dues.
  4. The musical director gives his "time and energies" free.
  5. The orchestra "will be entirely professional and will be remunerated for its services.
  6. There will be a "strict budget" for the productions.

Finally, in public reply to one rumor: The HOA has at no time applied to the welfare bureau for a grant.

It is not a charity, but a serious attempt to give this community what it lacks - the best of music at a price within the reach of all.

Next, HOA won a resounding victory over the equally righteous forces of the Prohibition: Music and prohibition clashed Friday during the meeting of the board of supervisors and prohibition lost on a point of priority. In the clash, however, the fact was brought out that William E. ("Pussyfoot") Johnson, world famed lecturer, is to pay Hawaii a two weeks' visit the latter part of November.

The Anti-Saloon League

The unexpected came when the Anti-Saloon League of Hawaii asked permission to use McKinley high school auditorium on the evening of Dec. 6 for a public mass meeting at which Johnson would speak, on the merits of prohibition.

The request was denied, however, when a committee report urged that McKinley be reserved for an operatic production. The committee in urging the adoption of its report pointed out that it had found that opera was to be presented on a community, non-profit basis; that singers and officials were to serve without pay and that the object was to supply good music in Honolulu at the lowest possible cost price to the public. It was later divulged that the HOA had had its request before the board a week or more before the request of the Anti-Saloon League for use of McKinley.

Vis-Norton struck again in late October and then in November, first with a gimmicky publicity bit of rather questionable taste, then with a long advance story, mentioning that "there have been frequent rehearsals beginning in September." The publicity bit had to do with discounts and free tickets:

Unable to comply with the request that a special performance be given for the schools of the city, the directors have reserved a large number of excellent seats and have offered these to students of the high schools and the university at a special price of 35 cents only. This will enable upwards of 400 students to witness the performance each night.

A section is reserved for children of the Territorial Institution for the Deaf and Blind, who, with their teachers, will be the guests of the association.

That this new non-profit-making organization already stands high in the estimation of all who believe in altruistic work for the advancement of the community is amply indicated by the splendid response to the pledge cards and the manner in which the many clubs throughout the city have taken up the work of securing pledges for the opera program.

There was no end of trouble as a result of the invitation for the deaf and blind children - undoubtedly a rather strange altruistic gesture.

Even five months after the announcement, on March 7, 1929, Vis-Norton was still explaining in the Star-Bulletin that the invitation was "not giving away a bunch of useless seats as a cheap publicity stunt."

Another Vis-Norton letter to the editor explained that "Martha" will be sung in English "because many people in Honolulu would refrain from going to hear it otherwise."

Selling Martha

There were reports of the scenery being painted locally while costumes were shipped in from the Mainland. And then, a long and determined effort to sell tickets:

Nov. 11 - "A long 'bread-line' at the Thayer Piano Co. for tickets."

Nov. 20 - "Exceptionally heavy bookings," but "a large number of excellent seats still obtainable."

Dec. 1 - "A rumor has gained credence (yep, that's Vis-Norton) that all seats have been sold out. The directors desire to announce that this is not the case."

Dec. 6 - "Special parking arrangements ... with police and Boy Scouts directing traffic ... Tickets still available."

Dec. 7 - "Seats will be obtainable tonight at the door."

It was a typical case of "going, going, not gone" - an attempt to start a stampede for tickets, but not quite making it. Judging from the follow-up reports, there were good-size audiences at the two performances, but the dream of SRO eluded the new organization.

What was the reason for the extraordinarily heavy newspaper publicity for HOA, with 37 articles about Martha, including major features, advance stories, separate reviews of the dress rehearsal, the premiere performance and the second night?

First, clearly, it was a local, civic endeavor and, as such, well deserving of coverage. Second, it had to do - the participants, audiences and the supporting organization - with the segment of society which both owned and read the newspapers.

And then there were other, small factors.

Starring the Publisher's Wife

For example, while the Star-Bulletin only listed in the title role of Martha one Suzanne Allen, the Advertiser ran an extensive feature about the local singer, Mrs. Riley Allen, who happened to be the wife of the Star-Bulletin's long-time, powerful editor. Who knows how important Mrs. Allen's participation in the opera was for getting all that publicity? We know only that the second production, The Bohemian Girl, without Mrs. Allen, had only 18 press mentions - against more than twice that number for her Martha.

For sure, Mrs. Allen did not receive personal publicity in the Star-Bulletin. But Martha did. And a Star-Bulletin editorial explained the reasons for its great support of the enterprise:

Music-loving Honolulu will go en masse to McKinley auditorium Friday and Saturday nights for performances of the grand opera 'Martha' by the newly organized Honolulu Opera Association. Directors, principals and chorus have worked hard, literally for months, to offer Honolulu an operatic evening which will be really enjoyable.

The HOA, a civic organization which profits not one cent by the undertaking, has devoted much time and energy to a project aimed to vary and enlarge the scope of enter- tainment available in Honolulu.

No singer out of the 70-odd who will appear is paid for his or her services -- these are freely given as part of a community en- terprise. In addition to giving Honoluluans and visitors an evening of melodious and picturesque opera, 'Martha' is an encouragement to amateur musical effort. Such undertakings as this, with their many weeks of faithful rehearsing, should reveal and stimulate musical talent hitherto unknown. To stage this opera is an ambitious undertaking.

The assembling and drilling of cast and chorus, the securing of costumes and scenery, the engaging of a large orchestra, are features which require a rare faith in Honolulu's readiness to support an institution which is earnestly trying to give a good performance. In making such a performance a success, the audience can cooperate to an extent not often realized:

In getting to the auditorium early, in getting seated before the curtain rises, in encouraging these amateurs with cordial applause ... in suggesting to others that they help fill the house ... by giving the performance such praise as it deserves not only for what is actually accomplished, but for what is earnestly attempted.

Opera by Motor Car

In addition to all the good advice, the newspaper thoughtfully published a traffic and a parking map "to aid those who will go to the opera by motor car" - still the minority transportation mode in those days.

The Star-Bulletin review, by Louise Johansen, managed to polish off Mrs. Allen in a parenthesis, without any mention of how well (or badly) she performed:

The sentimentally thrilling 'Last Rose of Summer' is alone sufficient to sustain a scene. As sung last night by 'Martha' (Suzanne Allen), the sad, appealing melody left its echo in one's memory.

Miss Johansen concentrated in her review on the over-all production, the work itself, and audience response:

Members of the Honolulu Opera Association and the cast of 'Martha' received congratulations of the community today, following a successful and memorable production of Flotow's opera at McKinley high school auditorium Friday evening.

The first evening's performance demonstrated what may be given in the form of first rate entertainment utilizing the talent available locally. Nor was it sufficient to count on talent alone for the quality of production heard in Honolulu last night.

'Martha' represented weeks of arduous work, continued rehearsals, dramatic practice, the making of sets and the thousand and one minute details which only directors and actors know about. The result was a stimulating presentation of the difficult light opera, and it gave all who heard it a brighter outlook for future entertainment in the city.

Let those who are in a perpetual stew about there being 'nothing to do, nothing to see and no place to go' step forth this evening and discover entertainment offered by 'Martha'.

An exceptional feature of the production was the manner in which the leading parts were kept on a level. There was no striving of one to outdo the other... 'Lionel' (Maj. A.H. Warren), it was later learned, suffered not only the pangs of love for 'Martha,' but endured throughout the performance the realistic agonies that follow removal of a wisdom tooth.

Despite an aching jaw, 'Lionel' carried his romantic part to a successful conclusion. Costumes throughout were elaborate, conveying authentically the rich sartorial sophistication of the Queen Anne period ... Excellent sets. Great credit is due to the conductor and dramatic director of the production, who well deserved the curtain calls which brought Milton Seymour, conductor, and Edna B. Lawson, dramatic director, to the stage.

At the conclusion, stars and cast alike were applauded with a bewildering assortment of leis, baskets of flowers and bouquets which massed the stage.

Truth Comes Later

It was months later that some of the truth about the production slipped through the press.Reporting on rehearsals for The Bohemian Girl three months later, a writer said:

Local music enthusiasts who have had the privilege of attending some of these rehearsals, and who witnessed the initial production of the opera organization, Flotow's 'Martha,' voice their astonishment at the marked improvement manifested in the work of the fine chorus.

And yet, marked improvement and all, Bohemian Girl fared far worse in every respect. Although there were, once more, the Vis-Norton letters about "rumors that have recently gained credence," articles about "tickets going fast," and even another traffic map to McKinley, the unsigned review of the March 8, 1929, premiere was apologetic:

The production of an opera is an ambitious undertaking under any circumstances and particularly so in a community so isolated as Honolulu and so entirely dependent on its own resources. Therefore if the results fall somewhat short of the standards set by professionals elsewhere, those behind it are not to be censored, but rather praised for their courage in attempting such an undertaking. And the audience should attend in a spirit of uncritical enjoyment.

On the whole, that spirit seemed to prevail last night. The production was colorful, gay and melodious; for the most part, easy on the eye and the ear.

Artistically, the best work was done by the chorus, but the principals deserve full credit for producing the best they had in them. No sincere lover of music could fail to find the opera good entertainment.

Contrast this with the review of another musical event during the same year:

Marked by excellent stage settings and a cast of principals with good voices, supported by an admirably trained chorus, 'The Sorcerer' by Gilbert and Sullivan was presented in a pleasing manner Friday night at McKinley high school auditorium. Those who seek amusement this Saturday evening could do no better than attend. It is not often that diversion of this standard is available in Honolulu. Costuming is another bright feature of the production. Ladies in royal purple and ermine, trailing white satins and the peasant dress of the chorus, add to the gay atmosphere.

The Sorcerer was given by the remnants of HOA, which slowly disbanded in confusion. Plans called for presenting The Prince of Pilsen, but the music did not arrive from the mainland in time. Then The Gondoliers was contemplated, but finally that, too, fell through.

Finally, a decision was made "that there will be no production of future operas unless they can be given as well as those given during the 1928-29 season."

And so Hawaii's first resident opera company came to an untimely end.

The 'Thirties

The operatic activities of the 1930s were both low key and poorly reported. Against the large pile of clippings for 1928-29, newspaper files show practically nothing for this decade.

From other sources, it appears that musicals, especially Gilbert and Sullivan, were often performed and there might have been some school and amateur productions of opera as well.

Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado was the very first production signaling the birth of the Honolulu Community Theater.

In cooperation with the Morning Music Club, HCT first presented The Mikado in McKinley auditorium on March 1, 1935, with Elroy Fulmer and Fritz Hart in charge of the production.

Hart, who headed the Honolulu Symphony between 1931 and 1949, presided over many musical productions, but the emphasis was on Gilbert and Sullivan and popular, light works, not on grand opera.

The same combination of HCT and the Morning Music Club, however, did present Butterfly on May 14, 1936, in McKinley with Ululani Robertson and Aroldo Collini.

Hart, besides presiding over Gilbert and Sullivan productions, also conducted his own opera, Even Unto Bethlehem, several times in the next decade.

Symphony concerts often featured arias and selections from operas. Some of the programs during the Hart regime were most impressive. During the 1939-40 season, for example, Marjorie Lawrence, John Brownlee, John Charles Thomas and Marian Anderson were scheduled to appear.

All in all, however, Gilbert and Sullivan reigned supreme on the field of staged, complete musical productions.

For example:

And so on, with schools, short-lived amateur music and theater companies, charity organizations, whatnot - in addition to the hardy HCT which managed to survive to this day - and even church groups all producing their own Gilbert and Sullivan works, especially Mikado, HMS Pinafore and Gondoliers.

And there was a lot more in the 1940s, even operas and musicals, as remembered mostly from surviving program notes:

One can see almost as authentic a Chinese Opera by going to Honolulu's Chinatown as by going to China. Here, you won't find noodles being served during the course of the play, and the show lasts about four hours instead of five or six hours as in South China. Bawling babies are at a minimum. There is no danger of having your face whacked by a hot towel that an attendant tries to throw to the customer in the row beyond you.

George Barati Takes Over

From 1949, with the arrival of George Barati as new director of the Honolulu Symphony, opera received a new boost, with many concerts built around visiting singers, the performance of light opera and musicals - all pointing in the direction of a permanent opera organization and regular opera seasons.

Beginning with the 1950s, there were numerous public suggestions for the creation of a regular opera season.

The Metropolitan's Dorothy Kirsten, for example, who vacationed in Hawaii and appeared with the Honolulu Symphony several times, said that various groups should work together to develop an opera company in Hawaii.

She said that numerous smaller cities on the mainland have established quite competent opera companies with the help of their symphonies. "In San Antonio, the symphony plays for opera performances ... thus the city offers a full program for musicians and can obtain very good people."

The idea, which originated in Europe a hundred years ago, eventually became reality, with the Honolulu Symphony and the Hawaii Opera Theater sharing manpower and resources, and eventually creating regular opera seasons as the result.

Then there were the fantasies and "big deal" promotional ideas, similar to the land development and construction promotions only too well known in Hawaii, one such lark playing big in the press for almost a full year. It started with Gilbert G. Zimmerman, a young conductor from San Antonio and Cincinnati, vacationing in Hawaii in 1959 and announcing plans for a "full-scale Hawaii Opera Festival," to be held in September, 1960.

Zimmerman proposed six fully-staged grand operas to be performed during the week-long festival, to be tied in with a Lurline cruise and nationwide promotion - with a cast including Kirsten, Hines, Milanov, and Valdengo!

"Zimmerman hopes the festival's success would lead to the building of an opera house as part of Honolulu's new civic center."

Guido Salmaggi joined the organization that was busy with plans and big announcements and he tried to sign up soloists for the festival in New York.

By November, 1959, Zimmerman was signing contracts, retaining 32 of the Symphony's 36 musicians for five 3-hour rehearsal periods for each of the six operas to be presented.

A total festival budget of $65,000 was set and Zimmerman talked about the origin of the festival idea - his father was a visiting professor of music at the University of Hawaii summer session in 1952 and that is when the young man (27 in 1959) decided on the desirability and feasibility of such a large-scale operatic venture.

There were more reports about the plans, the $65,000 became "minimum guarantee" instead of total budget, and then, in March, 1960, reality punctured the big balloon, with an article that explained not only Zimmerman's problems, but also pointed at some of the conditions that are almost as real today as they were back then: .

An ambitious proposal to bring 'name' stars to Honolulu for a six-opera festival at McKinley Auditorium in September has met with the charge that 'it just won't go in this town.' Businessmen are hesitating to underwrite that they feel is a losing proposition. Many Symphony people are afraid the opera will take money away from the Symphony, which has a hard enough time staying solvent. Individual Symphony people are concerned because the opera's lagging guarantor drive has brought it smack up against the Honolulu Symphony's annual fund drive. Businessmen who say 'we'd like to be guarantors' point out that even Jack Benny didn't draw a full house. They suggest Zimmerman wait another year. He counters that machinery is set up, reservations made, a local (unpaid) chorus rehearsing and so on.

In August, a story casually mentioned that plans were canceled "sometime back" when the guarantee could not be raised. Not ready to quit yet, Zimmerman announced a May, 1961, festival, "with a more realistic schedule of four operas."

Meanwhile, however, the even more realistic plan of a single opera - without Kirsten, Hines, Milanov, et al. - was implemented by the Honolulu Symphony and on March 4, 1961, the curtain went up on Butterfly to open the history of regular, reliable and ever-expanding opera seasons in Hawaii. The Hawaii Opera Theater has arrived.