WASHINGTON >> The story of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy got an intriguing retelling in “Better Gods,” a short opera that premiered Friday night at John F. Kennedy Theatre for Performing Arts.
Luna Pearl Woolf’s ambitious setting of a tight, precise libretto by Caitlin Vincent takes the audience on a journey back 90 years in time to an episode shocking for its cruel audacity—forcing a leader, in this case Queen Liliuokalani, to give up her throne to save not her own life, but those of her supporters. “My crown or my soul,” sings the queen, performed admirably by mezzo soprano Daryl Freedman, in despair. These days, such threats are of course be a staple of Hollywood, but that this one happened “in real life” gives one pause.
Opera has a way of bringing in the extraneous: A character is created simply because the composer wanted to write an aria for a favorite singer. The death scene lingers for the soprano, going out in a blaze of vocal glory, simply so the composer can show his stuff.
“Better Gods” doesn’t have any of that, partially because the project itself, restricted to about an hour by the commissioner, the Washington National Opera, couldn’t allow for it. But the story that it tells also doesn’t really call for it either. After all, the queen, after her forced abdication in 1895, was imprisoned but not brutalized, and lived in peace until her death in 1917. The overthrow itself was bloodless, and most of us enjoy the fruits of American statehood now.
The writers of “Better Gods” thankfully did not try to force any extra drama into the story, but there was a lot of content nonetheless. The story itself simply relates how the queen, upset at how her brother, King Kalakaua, was forced to sign away his powers in the “Bayonet Constitution, tries to install a new constitution to give more power to Hawaiian people. This triggers the overthrow by American-backed business and political interests, as represented in the opera by the egotistical, pompous Lorrin Thurston. Played nicely by tenor Rexford Tester, he boisterously sings of how “People will thank me some day” for bringing the “Better Gods” of “railroads” (light rail, anyone?) and “the stars and stripes of America.”
A journalist James Miller (Hunter Enoch), representing a composite of several historical figures, then comes to interview both sides. He at first is convinced of Thurston’s good intentions, but then is shocked to find the queen to be educated, charming and not at all ill-suited to rule her people.
While a knock at the media might be suggested here, it’s well-deserved. Newspapers back then “took sides” on the issue of the overthrow, many jingostically supporting the overthrow. Miller’s character also perhaps serves as a representing modern times. His innocence reflects the fact that the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy is to this day a little-known chapter in American history, getting far less attention than slavery or the conquest of Native American tribes.
A final scene has the queen on trial for allegedly helping one of her supporters, the soldier Robert Wilcox, played by bass Wei Wu, lead a counterrevolution against the new provisional government. With dialog drawn from history, it leaves one wishing that this show trial would have that Hollywood ending: That the queen would have had the wherewithal, just by reason alone, to defeat her opponents, to show them the error of their ways, global politics, economic development and the desire to “help” the “charming and simple” Hawaiian people, as Thurston calls them.
While this storyline suggests that “Better Gods” was mostly “park and bark” opera—i.e., the singers just stood around and sang—was some action on stage. Woolf positioned WNO percussionist Greg Akagi on a platform on stage, surrounded by Hawaiian traditional instruments, such as the ipu heke (double gourd) and the iliili (stone castenets), all of which he played with admirable dexterity. He was occasionally joined by Wu, as the soldier Wilcox, and their synchronized, dancelike snapping of the warrior sticks made for simple but decent theater, not unlike a taiko performance.
The real tension in “Better Gods” is in the characters and their relationship to each other, which was written into the music, not always to great success. To distinguish the ethnic Hawaiian characters — the queen, Wilcox, and the young maid Kahua, beautifully played by Ariana Wehr — Woolf created a harmony based on characteristics of the Hawaiian chant, incorporating the dips and rises of the ha’i and the okina into a roughly atonal melodic line. The result was uneven—it seemed forced, the lines a bit too jagged in comparison to the intimacy of the words, although it was very effective in creating a separate language that ethnic Hawaiians would use among themselves as opposed to the language they would use with non-Hawaiians.
A more effective use of traditional Hawaiian vocalization were the lines of the “Kumulipo,” the Hawaiian chant of creation, that were sung between the opera’s three scenes. These lines were sung mostly using chant intonation, but rhythmically altered from what one might hear at a traditional performance. As such, they gave a pleasantly spiritual tone to the production, and in the end, when Liliuokalani sings that “the tide has come in, one day it will go out again,” one senses that she wants it to be in peace.
Woolf also incorporated some of the queen’s own songs into her score. “Aloha Oe,” sung by the queen and Kahua, was given a lovely arrangement, and quotes from “the Queen’s Prayer” and “‘Onipa’a” arise to give the audience some lyrical, poignant moments. Representing the American intrusion into the affair are some jaunty bars from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which serve as an entree for Thurston’s showboating.
Audience reaction to Friday’s performance — tickets were sold out, but there were some empty seats, probably due to a cold snap in Washington D.C. —- was generous. It was apparent from the gasps and groans of the crowd that the story was affecting them, that they had learned something important about Hawaii — and about the United States. At a rehearsal, one young woman was observed crying.
James “Kimo” Gerald, a former Hawaii resident who has been living in New York for decades as house manager at Carnegie Hall, came to the production and was impressed. Pointing to his heart, he said “it moved me right here.”
Organizers are hoping to bring “Better Gods” to Hawaii in the next year or two. Although the opera is not particularly easy on the ear, it would be a worthy effort, not only as an important story but as a source of inspiration for the many shapes and forms that opera can take.