JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Italian opera "Rigoletto" hits the Hawaii Opera Theatre stage this season. Above, Jorge Lopez-Yanez, as the Duke of Mantua, kisses Gilda (Nancy Allen Lundy), Rigoletto's daughter.
HOT, ala Italiano!
BREAK OUT the red chianti, spread the checked tablecloths, fling the pasta at the wall to see if it sticks, and any other cliché you can think of -- it's an all-Italian season for Hawaii Opera Theatre.
Giuseppe Verdi's opera is presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre:
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Time: 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $28 to $100
Call: 596-7858 or visit hawaiiopera.org
Season ticket packages are $81 to $288:
"Il Trittico: The Trio": By Giacomo Puccini; Feb. 24, 26 and 28
"Tosca": By Giacomo Puccini; March 10, 12 and 14
Consider the story of the hunchbacked jester who accidentally kills his daughter -- that's right, Verdi's "Rigoletto" -- to the overwrought lady who takes a flying dive after being conned by a jealous police chief -- yep, "Tosca," Puccini -- to a trio of one-act operettas by Puccini called, collectively, "Il Trittico," which includes illicit passion aboard a Paris barge, illegitimate birth and a mysterious death that sends a family of gold diggers a-quiver.
Pretty rich fare. Does it come with breadsticks?
"An all-Italian season is a wonderful idea. Puccini is my favorite composer, but I've never had the opportunity to hear 'Il Trittico.' I'm looking forward it," says long-time HOT patron and Waikiki resident Ruby Christenson, who sang coloratura in the chorus of the Miami Opera in the 1940s.
She's in good company. Opera in Hawaii goes back to the 1850s, and no less than Queen Emma sang in the chorus of -- who else? -- works by Verdi.
ACCORDING to HOT executive director Karen Tiller, the all-Italian season not only shows off the strengths of the company, it's clever marketing, as well.
"It's ambitious, of course, but well within our ability to accomplish it well," she said. "'Rigoletto' and 'Tosca' are standards, and fabulous bookends for the season. The three one-acts by Puccini, though, are rarely performed together, so that's a real treat and a good mix. As long as I've been in opera, I've never seen it. In fact, most people in opera have never seen all three together."
Marketing Italiano, invariably, gets tasty. Cafe Sistina, the muralist Italian restaurant on South King, has become a kind of unofficial headquarters for the season.
"I understand the owner paints all his murals while listening to Italian opera," chuckles Tiller, and if you've ever dined there, you know exactly what she means.
"The theme does help 'sell' the season as a total package," said HOT General and Art Director Henry Akina, "but most important, it focuses the audience on important commonalties of the operas performed in a compact time frame."
A past theme promoted the concepts of "Wanton Women" -- "La Traviata," "Salome" and "Carmen" -- and next season is all about "Dangerous Liaisons" -- "Samson and Delilah," "Don Giovanni" and "Madame Butterfly."
"Although other companies have themed seasons, our seasons are put together exclusively for Hawaii," Akina said. "We choose the themes based on repertoire and company focus."
It's working, too; so much for declining interest in classical music! "There's an uptick in subscriptions and single-ticket sales are going out the door," said Tiller. "We're already ahead of where we were last year."
Does the theme help amortize some cost elements like set design?
"No, each opera is treated as a unique entity within the overall theme," Akina explained. "We do not use common elements in the sets of the three operas. Each is conceived from the ground up. We do use scenery from past productions in our stock as raw material in some sets. This year's 'Rigoletto' set is rented from the Utah Opera, 'Il Trittico's' was built here, and 'Tosca' was purchased from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis."
"Bits and pieces of the St. Louis sets, incorporated into what works on the Blaisdell stage," said Tiller.
TILLER grew up in Virginia, playing piano, clarinet and violin and becoming a theater major in college; it was natural that she gravitated to opera. While working in the Virginia Opera, she heard of an opening in Honolulu.
"It's a pretty small business," she said. "There are 120 opera companies in the United States, and everybody knows everybody. I wanted to come here because -- well, in addition to just loving Hawaii -- because the Hawaii Opera Theatre, for its size, is one of the best regional companies in the country. The quality of the productions is just fabulous. I'm not just blowing smoke. I worked for the National Endowment looking at opera companies from all aspects, and Hawaii is a vital, dynamic company."
The location ain't bad, either. "We are informed and formed by our location, here at the crossroads of East and West. That means that artists from both sides like to perform here, and our productions have a slight Asian flavor."
HOT will capitalize on that groove with this summer's production of "The King and I." In the meantime, start laying in the garlic and sun-dried tomatoes.
"I don't know if an all-Italian season has been done anywhere else, but I'll toast -- with red wine! -- the (Hawaii Opera Theatre) for putting this season together," Christenson said.