In the late 1890s, Liliuokalani, the deposed queen of Hawaii, traveled to Washington, D.C., to make her case for the restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty after American business interests had overthrown her government. She met with President Grover Cleveland and several other politicians, journalists and supporters, and garnered widespread attention and fascination for her story. Her efforts ultimately failed, and in 1898 the United States formally annexed the Hawaiian Islands.
This week, the nation’s capital will once again resound with the story of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the dignified queen who tried to regain power for her people in “Better Gods,” an opera commissioned by the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative program, which aims to develop new operas about American themes. The one-hour production will be performed before sold-out houses Friday and Saturday at the intimate Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“Better Gods” was composed by Luna Pearl Woolf, 42, an award-winning composer based in Montreal, with libretto by Caitlin Vincent, an accomplished opera singer and librettist. Woolf’s work is known for its political and social content as well as its artistic merit. She has composed works about the Bernie Madoff scandal and Hurricane Katrina.
Woolf visited Hawaii a few years ago with her husband, touring concert cellist Matt Haimovitz, and had “the kind of experience that really stuck with me,” she said in a phone interview. Upon receiving the commission two years ago, it was suggested to her that she consider the saga of the Hawaiian queen as a topic. After reading Liluokalani’s autobiography, “Hawaii’s Story By Hawaii’s Queen,” and other material, Woolf felt it “fit so beautifully” with her mission to tell stories driven less by plot and action than by inner thought and emotion.
“It’s about what happens inside someone,” she said. “It’s about conflicts and inner turmoil that is emotional and can’t necessarily be captured in words alone. … There’s not that many words in opera, but what there is is inexplicable emotions that can be poured out in music and understood in a visceral, physical way by the audience without necessarily hearing it spelled it out in the words.
Woolf consulted a number of experts in Hawaiian culture, including Vicky Holt Takamine, Puakea Nogelmeier, Aaron Mahi, Hokulani Holt and Aaron Sala, and wound up “fascinated” by Liliuokalani, a woman who was rooted in Native Hawaiian culture and educated in the Western tradition and the Christian religion.
“She had traveled all over the world, understood politics, understood the world that she was in, and yet these qualities that made her so educated, so worldly, and so connected to the people who were trying to take her country from her, in a way, came to war within her. Those two elements embodied the divide within the woman at the same time.”
Woolf employed that theme of division within the music of her opera. It is roughly structured around the “Kumulipo,” the Hawaiian creation chant that details the genealogy of Hawaiian royalty. Sections of the chant, recited in both Hawaiian and English, are interspersed between three scenes detailing “moments where the queen had to make incredibly difficult decisions,” Woolf said.
Two of the three scenes are roughly based on historical events: In the first, Liliuokalani tells lawyer and businessman Lorrin Thurston that she plans to rewrite the constitution, triggering the overthrow; the third scene, the queen’s trial, ends in her abdication. An intermediate scene involves a journalist who interviews Thurston and Liliuokalani.
Musically, the opera is an amalgamation of several different styles, including a unique twist developed by Woolf herself. Eschewing Westernized Hawaiian musical traditions like ukulele and slack-key guitar, she delved into pre-contact hula kahiko, using instruments such as the ipu heke (double gourd), kaekeeke (bamboo tubes) and kalaau (warrior sticks).
Woolf also “extrapolated some pitches” from Hawaiian chanting technique, which employs subtle dips and jumps in the register of the voice, and created a harmony out if it.
“I’m not claiming it’s Hawaiian exactly, but I’ve derived it from the chant,” she said.
That kind of music is sung by two Hawaiian characters and the queen when she is talking about herself as a Hawaiian and Hawaii’s queen. It’s juxtaposed against Thurston’s style of singing, which Woolf described as “having lots of fun with lots of notes” to contrast with Hawaiian chant.
“There’s a big conflict between the two of them just harmonically speaking,” Woolf said.
The fact that Liliuokalani was a composer herself was “icing on the cake” for Woolf. The opera includes some of the queen’s compositions, the famous “Aloha ‘Oe,” and “Onipa‘a” (Stand Firm), which is used when the queen tells of her plans for a new constitution. Liliuokalani was 28 when she composed “Onipa ‘a,” which was written in support of Kamehameha V’s plans to rewrite the constitution.
“She was an exquisite poet, and not always a particularly sophisticated composer,” Woolf said. “She made some beautiful melodies but it was the imagery that was really strong in her music. What I found really inspirational was that at a young age, she wrote politically conscious and politically active songs.”
“BETTER GODS” has been an eye-opening experience for the singers in the opera. Liliuokalani will be portrayed by Daryl Freedman, a mezzo soprano who is part of the Washington opera’s young artist program.
“I was shocked that I didn’t know anything about this,” Freedman said.
She has been reading the queen’s memoir to prepare for the role. “She wanted to (do) the right thing and she had that strength and right within her. That’s been important for me to try to convey her,” Freedman said.
”She’s incredibly articulate and so knowledgeable about everything. She has wit and humor as well.”
Thurston, who sings of bringing the “Better Gods” of commerce and industrialization to Hawaii, will be performed by tenor Rexford Tester, another member of Washington’s young artist program. He said he sees his character not as a villain but as someone “who thought what he was doing was for the good of the country of Hawaii. He thought he was just looking out for the common good.
“In the opera, he says, ‘One day they will thank me,’ and I think he was genuinely thinking that. I don’t think he was trying to be a super-mean, hateful guy. It’s what he knew and he was going off that. He was just trying to help. America was this magical place that he thought could help the people of Hawaii.”
In the opera, Thurston says a number of uncomplimentary things about Liliuokalani. Tester said that was because Thurston saw her as a “strong obstacle” who stood in his way. “He had to maneuver around her and take care of things that way,” Tester said.
The singers have benefited from working with Takamine, a kumu hula who teaches hula at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has been the main cultural adviser on the project, helping the performers play the instruments and pronounce Hawaiian words correctly and giving them background on the culture and history of Hawaii.
“At the minimum I wanted it to be accurate and to be respectful to the queen and her legacy,” Takamine said.
Takamine also made some artistic contributions, giving a proper Hawaiian name to one of the characters and suggesting that Thurston be sung by a tenor rather than a baritone.
“I just thought of him as a tenor,” she said. “A baritone is warmer. A tenor is a little big sharper, at times a bit more piercing.”
Takamine hopes the production can be brought to Hawaii by 2017, which would mark the 100th anniversary of Liliuokalani’s death.
She said it is gratifying to see this production take the stage, coming at a time when the Hawaiian community is in a period of self-reflection and reorganization.
“We have some challenges and this is the time to have this piece commissioned by the Washington National Opera and have this premiere at the Kennedy Center,” she said. “It’s especially important for the Native Hawaiian people to know that this is happening.”
CORRECTION: Queen Liliuokalani was 28 when she composed “Onipa’a” to support Kamehameha V’s new constitution. Also Lorrin Thurston ws born and raised in Hawaii. An earlier version of this story and the story in Sunday’s paper said Liliuokalani was 18 when she composed “Onipa’a” and that the song was written for Kamehameha III’s constitution. The story also said Thurston was an American.