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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 31, 2003

For opera troupe, it's a Russian evolution

• HOT at a glance
• The 2004 season

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Tatyana (Aimee Willis) writes a love letter in Hawaii Opera Theatre's staging of "Eugene Onegin," the company's first performance in Russian.

Photos by Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Lenski (George Dyer) is in love with Olga (Elena Bocharova) in the opera "Eugene Onegin," the opening show in HOT's new season.

In this dance scene from the Russian-language opera, people end their day in the fields.
With "Coming of Age" as its theme, Hawaii Opera Theatre launches its 42nd season tonight at Blaisdell Concert Hall, with the first-ever-in-Russian production here of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

"It seemed to be the time to finally try a Russian opera in Russian, and 'Onegin' is one of the most accessible," said Henry Akina, HOT general and artistic director since 1996. "The last time it was done here, in a translation in English by Robert LaMarchina, was in the 1970s, but the tendency in our business — now that we have supertitles (projected translations) — is to do operas in the original language."

Baritone David Templeton, 36, performing the title role, also feels like he's coming of age with this production, his first in the Russian tongue. He said language is a vital consideration in mounting a night at the opera and he welcomes the challenge — despite the hard work — of embracing the original language, which had been foreign to him until now.

"My take is that it's becoming more and more in vogue to perform Russian operas, as a result of the falling of the Iron Curtain," said Templeton. "Like other great operas, in Italian, German or French ... (we) prefer the original language, since the composer set the text to the music. You put it in English, you change the music."

HOT also has been balancing its books (working with a $2.8 million budget) and consolidating resources, very aware of an uncertain economy and the need to efficiently use resources.

Thus, HOT is involved in consortia with all three productions. "Onegin" is a partnership with the Atlanta Opera, directed by Dejan Miladinovic, who will later conduct the work in Atlanta; "The Magic Flute," opening Feb. 14, conducted by William Boggs, involves the Edmonton Opera Canada, Opera Columbus and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City (Boggs is from Columbus, where he'll conduct the show); and "La Boheme," premiering Feb. 28, is a collaboration with the Memphis Opera, where Akina will conduct after conducting HOT's version.

Akina said HOT ticket sales have been steady; Sunday performances for all three operas are already sold out. But with the threat of war, "everyone's worried. We're careful about spending money. Still, what we do offer is a solid escape from the problems of the world. Too bad the climate of the country is not so positive."

Thus, HOT is coming of age financially as well as emotionally, in a time of cautious optimism and prudent spending.

Yes, it continues to stretch and grow — the Russian touch is a measure of change and maturity, perhaps even a risk, since the language has not been audience-tested here.

The move has certainly challenged everyone. Since he doesn't speak Russian, Templeton started preparations well over a year ago, working on the Mainland with a language coach to give proper pronunciation to the text and with a language mentor for the rehearsal process here. "I learned everything phonetically," he said. "Of course, I had to go through a literal translation, too, to know the story."

For budding enthusiast Alvin Lin, 16, opera also is emerging as a cultural magnet, enabling him to learn a lot about European arts and languages as he acquires a taste of opera that would make him part of a widening audience base that now includes, yes, teens. Historically, maturing and elderly adults have been the core of opera support; Lin's excursion into this realm of classical music portends a growth for opera down the line, and for the Roosevelt sophomore, a kind of coming-of-age time, too.

"Last year was my first, when I saw 'La Traviata,' " said Lin. "It was very enjoyable, even if I couldn't understand the language. Hearing something in another language was interesting, and it sounded, well, pleasing, with the music. I went to all three productions last year, and will see all three this year."

He marvels at the costuming and scenery and can get swept into the emotional wave that opera brings. "It helped me with my French (classes) and it's an interesting way to learn about European culture," said Lin. "I stay home a lot — I don't hang out at the malls — but I go to operas. I think if you start going when you're young, you'll go as an adult."

Akina said that the "Coming of Age" aspect is quintessential in "Onegin," since it deals with a dashing but jaded gentleman who faces changes based on questionable actions. Templeton describes the character as "an example of someone who missed an opportunity in society to amount to something, someone who blew some very important choices."

Indeed, Templeton said Onegin constantly confronts change in the story. "I don't know if he and I would be friends, but he is a gentleman, who speaks his mind. He's honest, and this is a virtuous quality. But there are buts: He's looking out for himself, he's pompous and arrogant, he's a guy you'd love to hate — a jerk. I hope, by the time the opera ends, the audience will feel sorry for Onegin, because he gets what he deserves, based on his choices."

By design, Onegin lacks empathy and suffers from restlessness, melancholy and regret, a cad who rejects his love interest, Tatiana, which not surprisingly results in remorse, loneliness and unrequited love.

Typical operatic intrigue and conflict, in other words. But sung in Russian.

"The plot is complex," said Akina. "If you can read the English, you can enjoy the Russian sound. Russian is a good language to sing; but the grammatical rules are very different."

• • •

HOT at a glance

2003 budget: $2.8 million.

2003 season: "Coming of Age" is the theme.


"Eugene Onegin," by Tchaikovsky, 8 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. With David Templeton as Eugene Onegin, Aimee Willis as Tatyana, George Dyer as Lenski. Directed by Dejan Miladinovic; Honolulu Symphony conducted by William Fred Scott.

"The Magic Flute," by Mozart, 8 p.m. Feb. 14, 4 p.m. Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18. With Justin Vickers as Tamino, Jacqueline Venable as Pamina, Leon Williams as Papageno, Lea Woods as Papagena. Directed by Mathew Latta; conducted by William Boggs.

"La Boheme," by Puccini, 8 p.m. Feb. 23, 4 p.m. March 2, 7:30 p.m. March 4, 7:30 p.m. March 5. With Jay Hunter Morris as Rodolfo, Quinn Kelsey as Marcello, Wilbur Pauley as Colline, James Scott Sikon as Schaunard, Juliana Rambaldi as Mimi, Alison England as Musetta. Conducted by Henry Akina; conducted by Jörg Pitschmann.

Blaisdell Concert Hall

Season tickets, $75-$270; single tickets, $27-$95


• • •

The 2004 season

"Songs of Love and War," showcasing three works dealing with conflicts between the sexes:

  • "Otello" by Giuseppe Verdi
  • "Cosi Fan Tutte" by Mozart
  • "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár