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Beloved vocal coach Neva Rego dies at 85

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    Danny Couch, Sonya Mendez, Marlene Sai, Neva Rego, Jimmy Borges, Carole Kai, Shari Lynn and Anita Hall at the State Capitol.

From humble Kaimuki origins, Neva Rego fulfilled a childhood dream to shape a career in music that spanned four decades and impacted a host of Hawaii and national performers.

Rego, an esteemed vocal coach, died Feb. 15 at age 85, at the 18th Avenue home where she was born. It also served as the Bel Canto School of Singing that she had operated since 1979 with Betty Grierson, her longtime business partner and companion.

Born Aggreneva Rego on June 21, 1932, she was named after a Russian opera singer, Aggreneva Scholovanskaya. “As I recall, when I was 7 years old, I heard this beautiful aria on the radio,” she said in a 2008 episode of “Long Story Short” on PBS Hawaii. “And I remember telling my mother that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my whole life.”

She knew then, and throughout her studies, which took her as far away as Italy, that her life would embrace music, particularly opera.

Mentor for many

As a voice coach, she mentored a who’s who of Hawaii entertainers: Robert and Roland Cazimero, Loretta Ables Sayre, Shari Lynn, Jimmy Borges, Tony Conjugacion, Willy Falk, Richard Chamberlain, Don Ho, “American Idol” contestants Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, Les Ceballos, Loyal Garner, Randy Hongo, Frank DeLima, Marlene Sai, Guy Merola, former Miss America Carolyn Sapp, Anita Hall, Aaron Sala, Manu Boyd, Carole Kai, Nohelani Cypriano, Carl Crozier and David Montero.

“She was pragmatic, not focusing just in opera but open to theater, Hawaiian, jazz,” said Falk, a Punahou School graduate whom Rego took under her wing early on. “She knew opera took years of training and apprenticeship, and she knew I needed a job, so I chose Broadway.”

Falk became a Tony-nominated Broadway actor and eventual opera performer who created the role of Chris in the first New York mounting of “Miss Saigon” in 1991.

“I was one of Neva’s very first students; she had just moved back to the islands from Italy and I was about 19,” he said. “Her belief in me and my voice gave me the confidence to move to New York to start a career. Her relentless pursuit of beautiful singing was mixed with a sense of duty to pass on the bel canto technique she had learned in Italy.

“No one could resist her enthusiasm.”

Friends to many more

Many others had endearing relationships with Rego.

“A good voice teacher is sometimes part psychologist, part parent, part motivational coach and friend,” said Lynn, a jazz singer, music teacher and Rego disciple since 1981. “Whenever I thought I couldn’t possibly reach a note or accomplish a task, she would push me to reach higher.”

Singer and kumu hula Robert Cazimero called her “an incredible teacher.”

“My lessons, besides voice and technique, included patience, gratitude and trying not to miss opportunities to support and give back to others. Our visits, the delicious figs from her yard, her lilting laughter and kindness — I will miss Neva,” he said.

Ables Sayre, a 2008 Tony Award nominee for her role of Bloody Mary in the revival of “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center, began classes with Rego in 2012. “Neva was gracious and wise, a mother, teacher, friend and confidante,” she said. “She built our vocal technique and confidence at the same time.”

At one session that Ables Sayre videotaped, Rego shared advice “to be strong amidst daunting New York performers,” she said. “I have listened to it over and over through the years, when I was thousands of miles away from home. I will miss her words of wisdom and guidance, encouraging and lifting me.”

Segundo, now a KITV4 news anchor, signed up to train with Rego after he became Hawaii’s first “American Idol” contestant in 2003. “I continued voice lessons for more than 10 years,” he said. “Through Neva’s teaching, I’ve become a stronger vocalist and able to sing notes I never could before. She helped to nurture and encourage my passion for music and singing.”

Her students unanimously cherished Rego’s generosity. Lynn recalled that when she needed a baby grand piano for a show of Gershwin tunes, Rego loaned her a piano from her studio. “After the show, she gave it to me. It is in our living room and a constant reminder of the love we had for one another,” she said.

Falk said their sessions often went into extra hours but she never asked for extra pay. “Even when I tried to give her more, she would refuse it by shoving it back in my pocket, knowing I was working as a busboy in a local restaurant at night,” he said. “If I felt tired, she would fix me coffee or something to eat, only to begin teaching me again.”

Ables Sayre had similar experiences with Rego. “She would rarely allow me to leave her house without taking something — rosemary from her garden, a CD of opera music, or a loaf of panettone bread.”

Pursuit of music

Rego attended Sacred Hearts Academy and credited the nuns’ instruction for her ability to learn Latin and French. After World War II, she briefly sang with Ed Kenney at the Halekulani Hotel before studying at the Conservatory in San Francisco. Back in Hawaii, she had a role in a “South Pacific” production and toured under the auspices of the U.S. Navy. Rego then took a freighter to Italy to pursue training and studies in the classical, Italian-style bel canto music she had heard on recordings and the radio as a child.

Rego remained in Italy for 25 years, graduating from the Milan Conservatory before returning to the islands. Her passion for and training in bel canto — literally, “beautiful singing” in Italian — prodded her to teach the technique.

In recent years, Rego amassed two major laurels: the National Association of Arts and Letters’ Excellence in Education lifetime achievement award in 2017, and a Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award, with partner Grierson, from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in 2016.

In 2014, Rego was hospitalized for eight months following surgery that left her reliant on a ventilator. In recent months, she again was hospitalized with breathing difficulties. As her health declined, her students and circle of friends continued to visit and talk story at her home studio, but she was fragile and frail, no longer able to teach, despite some upbeat days.

Services are pending. In addition to Grierson, Rego is survived by her brother, Jay Lowell Rego.

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