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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, February 25, 2005

Soprano travels the globe to learn language of opera

 •  Home for the opera
 •  Baritone grew up in a musical Island family

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Lea Woods Friedman turns off the Old Pali Road in Nu'uanu and into the driveway of a sprawling, white five-bedroom house. It is the same path many opera singers and some directors take while performing at the Hawaii Opera Theatre.

Lea Woods Friedman said she would love to do a Disney voice-over — Ariel-type roles.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

It's no hotel or even a high-end bed-and-breakfast. This is home.

When you step inside the palatial manor, you see signs of why she blossomed as an opera singer. A grand piano sits begging to be played. Afternoon tea is served on porcelain china. A hutch displays plates and bowls galore, vintage dolls are on display, and a huge doll house inspired by San Francisco-type homes is an eye-catcher in one corner of the living room.

Most of the time, the opera troupers passing through these doors are houseguests, staying here while performing with HOT. Some of the greatest have passed time within the home.

But it's different for Lea.

When Lea comes home, the clock gets turned back for her family, and you can hear her practicing her scales throughout the corridors and between the floors. Perhaps even the neighbors catch those high notes.

These days, the family says, being an opera singer is good. Lea Woods Friedman is home to perform in "Turandot" tonight, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. But Jill Friedman, who is the doll collector and doll house aficionado, candidly admits she didn't always see opera in her daughter's future.

"I never wanted Lea to be an opera singer," Jill said. "She was a product of a business school (Cornell University, with a hotel management degree), so why sing? But happily, she did it her way."

One of her mother's fears was that opera's internationalism would keep Lea away from home, and Lea's way did include globe-trotting. She now lives in Manhattan and commutes to Asia, where she has also established a career. That Asia connection now delights her mother, who has family abroad.

Lea has worked hard to gain fluency in the languages of opera. Lea lived for three years in Italy to learn the language, "and when I had to sing German or French, I would go to the dictionary, translating word for word, or ask my coach to help me get the phrasing," she said.

For Lea, it seems diversity plays as big a role in her life as destiny.

At Punahou School, she was in the chorus and studied violin as a child for more than a dozen years.

"Though I hated violin, it did give me the discipline and commitment to music," she said.

And now she's interested in broadening her resumé.

"After I started studying voice, I was told that my voice was suited to opera, and I've put in many years, giving it my all, but I'm still not 100 percent convinced that opera's my thing," she revealed. "I would love to do a Disney voice-over, you know, those Ariel-type roles, where you burst into song."

She has also courted musical theater and says she would love to sing as Tuptim in HOT's "The King and I" next summer.

Despite her mother's early reservations about Lea's career, music does run in the family. "My dad (campus college chairman with the University of Phoenix's College of Graduate Business and Management) played horns and brass while in college in Michigan, so I had family support," Lea said.

Though Sanford Friedman never played music professionally, he has always been a "stage dad." At Punahou, when his daughter played Peter Pan, Sanford pulled the ropes so she could fly.

He's also the one who insisted she stick with fiddling "so that she could appreciate music; consequently, she now knows what it's like to be out of tune, because of her musical training," he said.

Lea Woods Friedman knows more money probably could have been made performing elsewhere this weekend. But, she says, opera singers typically come to Hawai'i because they want to be here, not for the money.

"For me, it's a homecoming, too," she said.

"We get spoiled here. We get support from the community; my young singing friends don't have this kind of backing from family and extended 'ohana. It's a different mentality here — one of the reasons why coming home is so special."