DON RANNEY JR./ TAU DANCE THEATRE
Kala'i Stern plays the title role of Naupaka in Peter Rockford Espiritu's Hawaiian opera.
Groundbreaking Hawaiian opera soars
It's probably inevitable that "firsts" in almost any area of social or cultural endeavor are greeted more effusively and with less critical analysis than those that come after. "Naupaka: A Hawaiian Love Story," Peter Rockford Espiritu's Hawaiian opera, is one such "first" in Hawaiian music, a three-act opera with an original score performed almost entirely in Hawaiian.
Even without that excitement, the premiere of "Naupaka" by Espiritu's Tau Dance Company at Leeward Community College Theatre Saturday was impressive in almost all respects. A sold-out house responded enthusiastically to his musical version of a well-known Hawaiian legend performed by a talented cast to an imaginative combination of Hawaiian and Western music and dance.
Espiritu, who wrote the libretto, was also the director and choreographer. His choreography embraced hula, hip-hop and tango. Conductor John Signor's score used traditional Hawaiian percussion instruments, the pu (conch shell) and acoustic bass as well as contemporary computer-generated electronic music.
The Hawaiian text and original poetry by Puakea Nogelmeier ensure that "Naupaka" will remain a landmark in modern Hawaiian-language theater.
Kala'i Stern, Kamakoa Page and Starr Kalahiki were an appealing trio in the lead roles of the doomed lovers, Naupaka and 'Okikimakaloa. Stern, a Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning recording artist with a background in opera, portrayed Naupaka, distinguishing himself as a singer, chanter, percussionist and dancer.
Page represented 'Okikimakaloa in dance, while Kalahiki provided her voice. Page's extensive background in ballet was an essential element in representing 'Okikimakaloa's free spirit and her yearning for love; Kalahiki brought a beautiful operatic voice and an aura of tragic dignity to her portion of the role.
The trio was supported by three pairs of talented secondary actors. Jonathan Clark Sypert (Kupu'eu) and Frank Ka'anana Akima (Kamekea) provided most of the comic moments as Naupaka's cousins. Sypert's skill as an athletic hip-hop and street dancer added visual impact when Espiritu's choreography juxtaposed hula and Western dance; Sypert's rapping -- in Hawaiian -- was also effective.
Deborah Kelsey (Hokeo) brought a show-stopping operatic voice to the role of 'Okikimakaloa's grandmother. Robert Keano Ka'upu IV (Kaumaka'ike) was similarly impressive as her spiritual counterpart, the kahuna/adviser of Naupaka's family. The two dominated several pivotal scenes in which Hokeo and Kaumaka'ike anticipate the tragedy and try to prevent it.
Moanikeala Nabarro ('E'epa) and Terence Knapp (Keakahi) added a deeper spiritual element as supernatural observers whose conversations underscored the seriousness of an inappropriate relationship between an alii and a kaua (slave).
What was not clearly explained in the English subtitles or the program notes was why Naupaka and 'Okikimakaloa were tainted by the guilt of previous generations (Nogelmeier explained afterward that Naupaka's royal ancestors created the caste system that allowed them to exploit the maka'ainana -- commoners -- and kaua; 'Okikimakaloa's grandmother should have tattooed her with a mark showing that she was kaua, but had not done so).
Costume designer Puamana Crabbe mixed and matched Hawaiian and "American" fashions beginning with the post-missionary era and continuing through the present. The lime green and hot pink Hollywood hula outfits worn by Moanikeala Nabarro and Delys Recca were eye-catchers in one number; hip-hop fashions established the contemporary setting of an 'awa club in another.
Signor's score proved serviceable rather than memorable, but that is somewhat in keeping with a cultural tradition in which lyrics and percussive rhythm are more important than melody.
The problems on Saturday were of the "first night" variety -- malfunctioning audiovisual equipment, feedback and general sluggishness on the part of the tech crew. Signor's electronic instruments were sometimes louder than they should have been, and there were long periods in the second and third act in which no English subtitles were shown.
Problems aside, "Naupaka" was a magnificent step in bringing Hawaiian-language entertainment forward and upward in the new century.