Hawaii Opera Theatre (Honolulu, HI)

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  Students on-stage performing in traditional Japanese dress

Ko-Ko discusses his impending marriage to a reluctant Yum-Yum and her sisters in Aina Haina Elementary School’s production of The Mikado. Photo courtesy Hawaii Opera Theatre

When educators from Hawaii Opera Theatre visit island schools, they don’t waste time bemoaning the limited musical resources available. Instead, they take advantage of exposing students to classical music. Children encountering opera for the first time are blissfully unaware of stereotypes like plump sopranos wearing Viking helmets; they take to arias like catchy pop songs.

“These kids have no inhibitions,” said Erik Haines, the educational director of Hawaii Opera Theatre (HOT). “They sing opera on the playground and in the baseball dugout.”

In 2006, Hawaii Opera Theatre received an NEA Learning in the Arts grant of $20,000 to stage full-length operas at five Oahu elementary schools. For two months, each school was transformed into an opera company, with students learning how to do everything from sing to apply stage makeup. Three schools presented a custom adaptation of Madame Butterfly, with Puccini’s tragic ending replaced by a comic punch line. A fourth school staged Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. And at Waikele Elementary, third-graders produced their own eco-opera, Save the Habitats, based on poems they wrote about ecology in a language arts class. HOT’s resident accompanist set the students’ libretto to famous arias to create the opera.

HOT has been offering residencies in some form since 1995. The program expands each year, and future plans call for staging operas on the island of Maui, where only one-third of the elementary schools have music teachers. The company also flies singers to all the major islands to perform at schools and offers dress rehearsal tickets to Honolulu students for each of its mainstage productions.

(From the NEA 2006 Annual Report)