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Scotland-bound: Students to perform teacher’s Hawaiian opera at festival

Since 1947, there’s been one month each summer when the streets of Scotland’s capital host an explosion of talent. Last year, Edinburgh Festival Fringe staged more than 3,300 shows, with more than 50,000 performers taking part. Actors and theater troupes come from around the world — as do about 1 million visitors eager to take in the organized chaos of the world’s largest arts festival.

A few things have been missing from the decades of Festival Fringe: olelo Hawaii and hula.

That will change next summer when a group of 20 students from Kamehameha School’s Hawaii Island campus travel to Festival Fringe to perform an original Hawaiian opera as part of the event’s American High School Theatre Festival. They are one of 50 schools to be featured in the AHSTF.

“It’s the first Hawaiian (language) anything,” music director Herb Mahelona said. “There hasn’t been a Hawaiian presentation there.” (In 2011, Oahu’s Nanakuli High and Intermediate School traveled to Festival Fringe to perform a Broadway-style musical.)

“He makes us sound so cool,” Kamehameha junior Makana Waikiki said.

The school’s theater program is relatively young — its first musical, “Oliver,” was performed in 2006. Some of the kids in the opera cast played orphans in that show and have stayed in theater ever since. Their second home, they say, is the theater room.

Still, the group didn’t expect to be accepted to the festival. The campus has been performing Mahelona’s operas — all original compositions — for the past two years for its spring ho‘ike and sent video of these shows to festival coordinators. Part of the impetus, theater director Eric Stack said, was that the operas themselves are likely the first ever to be written entirely in Hawaiian.

“We decided that it should get more exposure,” he said.

“We had just submitted … to another festival and got a polite rejection letter right away, so we weren’t optimistic at all,” Mahelona said.

“We thought ‘Oh, why not.’”

In March, they learned they’d be heading to Scotland. Mahelona made the trip to Edinburgh in August as part of the high school theater festival’s familiarization process, which allows one teacher to scout the festival and its venues and activities beforehand.

“Everyone there is very, very excited,” he said. “I can’t even describe it to you; they were bouncing off the walls. They were like ‘Hawaiian dancing?!’”

Edinburgh has a familiar culture, Mahelona said. “There’s a small city feel, great people, great food.”

At first, the trip itself was all that the cast could think about. Now, they’re focusing on the daunting task of preparing the show itself.

The opera is based on the legend of Kana (described by one student as the Hawaiian equivalent to the Trojan War), a tale featuring heroes, warring chiefs, prophecies and tragedies.

“We’re all starting to become our characters, too,” Waikiki said.

“I hope not,” sophomore Jameson Sato said. “I’m the bad guy.”

Opera requires a different type of actor investment than other theatrical endeavors.

“It’s much more dramatic, and I think it requires a lot more energy than just, say, a musical would because you’re constantly singing. That’s all you’re doing,” said junior Daylan Kalai.

Kalai sang in his first opera last year, as did fellow junior Arieke Longakit.

“I think the key is just rehearsing,” Longakit said. “I wasn’t in every scene, but with the amount I sang, my throat got so sore, and we did three shows. You just need to manage your time wisely and rehearse.” At Festival Fringe, the cast will perform four shows in two weeks.

The standard formula for mastering an opera is singing it 100 times, Mahelona said. And though that amount of repetition seems like it could lead to boredom, the performers say it’s the only way to fully explore character and story.

“It honestly doesn’t get tired,” Kalai said. “Each time you sing it, you’re hoping to improve, you’re looking for something else when you sing it, and then by the time the production is here, you’re just looking to share that story with everyone.”

“That’s the beauty of opera,” Mahelona said. “There’s always layers … and plus it’s Hawaiian, and Hawaiian already has so many layers of meaning. That’s what makes it easy to just go over and over.”

Because it’s a Hawaiian opera, the dance and oli elements are part of that story layering as well. The intertwining pieces mean that even if you don’t understand Hawaiian, you’ll still understand what’s happening onstage.

“In the eyes of the audience members, you can see that they totally get what’s going on because there’s so many acts of communication,” Waikiki said. At the beginning of a show, she said, people are constantly trying to look back and forth between the stage and their pamphlet with the song translations.

“But over 10 minutes, they’re just like ‘No, I get it,’ because there’s so much emotion put into it,” Waikiki said.

The first performance will be next spring during the school ho‘ike, when the cast is 550 strong and includes kids in the elementary school and middle school (eighth-grader Kayla Enanoria is part of the main Scotland cast).

That show, along with performances in Kona and Waimea, serves as a fundraiser for the travel costs of the trip — $213,000. Proceeds from the fall musical “West Side Story,” which opens Nov. 19, and the school’s Christmas concert also will go toward that effort.

Mahelona remembers feeling a far-reaching sense of accomplishment after the school’s first opera was performed.

“I felt like we had accomplished something significant for the Hawaiian culture, kind of pushed it forward a little bit,” he said. “And what I really like is that it pulled the students into the culture, into the story in a way that wasn’t there previously … that’s rewarding for me, to see how it affects the students.”

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune- herald.com.

 

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