Thursday, December 17, 2020

Hawaiian Artists Work with Opera Youth

Seattle Opera youth and Teaching Artist Andrew Coopman learning hula from Cyndi Aiona Kahaiali'i, Co-Producer with Live Aloha Cultural Festival.  
This fall, Seattle Opera partnered with the Live Aloha Hawaiian Cultural Festival to learn and record a youth opera based on the legend of Lā‘ieikawai. Composed by Neil Mckay, Lā‘ieikawai: Princess of Paliuli has previously been performed in a virtual format by youth singers with Hawai‘i Opera Theatre's Youth Opera Chorus. The entire rehearsal process took place over Zoom. The Live Aloha teaching artists taught participants about the Hawaiian culture, lei-making, the legend of Lā‘ieikawai, and choreographed a hula dance for the opera’s finale.

After learning their individual singing/dancing parts, youth participants filmed themselves (or had a parent film). The individual video files were compiled into one final, digital "performance," and shared with parents and families in December.

Live Aloha (Live as in, “to live” or “living”) is Washington State's premier Hawaiian cultural festival held every September at the Seattle Center; a celebration of Hawai'i’s music, dance, and history intended to preserve and perpetuate the unique island traditions. 

Considering that Seattle Opera is a predominantly white organization, it was important to Youth Programs Manager Sara Litchfield to approach the project with care and respect. Many of opera’s most famous works carry the ancestral knowledge of European storytellers. But Litchfield said that youth programming is one way for opera companies to carve out a decidedly more multicultural future. 

Held in Seattle, The Live Aloha Hawaiian Cultural Festival aims to educate more people about Hawaiian culture through workshops, entertainment and fun.

“With a youth opera, there is less of a set idea on what it needs to be,” Litchfield said. “We have an opportunity in the stories we choose to tell. My long-term goal would be that when people think of ‘opera’ they don’t just think ‘Mozart.’” 

Cyndi Aiona Kahaiali‘i, a co-producer of Live Aloha, is passionate about sharing her Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and sharing the responsibility that comes along with this knowledge. 

When Kahaiali‘i began working with Seattle Opera youth, she wanted to teach them an aspect of Hawaiian culture that might seem commonplace. Thus, she started with teaching the true meaning of the word “aloha.” Some of the students thought it was a simple greeting—“hello” and/or “goodbye.” They had heard it before in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch.

While these answers were not necessarily wrong, aloha is not simply a word to say; it's a concept and the foundation of Hawaiian values. 

“The literal translation means the presence of breath. It means to give breath life to what is right in front of you,” she says. “I often tell my students, ‘You will not hear me say aloha often; I really mean it when I say it.”

Working in an online format wasn’t always easy. For one—engaging children online requires a high degree of on-screen charisma and energy. But there was a silver lining to be found every step of the way. When Kahaiali‘i taught the students hula, she did not teach them any footwork. Instead, the students benefited from a simplified approach, learning the movement in a seated position, which is how Kahaiali‘i herself learned the art. 

Seattle Opera youth and Teaching Artist Andrew Coopman learning hula from Cyndi Aiona Kahaiali'i, Co-Producer with Live Aloha Cultural Festival.

Also, in this new digital format, Seattle Opera instructors started listening to students sing individually. Before the pandemic, when learning in a large youth ensemble, a music director might go through an entire workshop not having had the opportunity to hear a student’s solo voice. But during the pandemic, the youth sing to the piano accompaniment on mute. But they might be called on at any time to unmute themselves and sing individually. This practice has helped increase music literacy, and can be a lesson for when in-person events resume, Litchfield said.

“We’ve actually received a lot of positive feedback from parents, many of whom have had a kid involved in Seattle Opera youth programs for years,” Litchfield said. “Learning in this format is sometimes challenging for our youngest singers. But there is still a way to perform and be creative right now, and that’s important.”

Seattle Opera youth and Teaching Artist Andrew Coopman learning hula from Cyndi Aiona Kahaiali'i, Co-Producer with Live Aloha Cultural Festival.  

This spring, the show must go on… online! Youth Opera Online offers young performers ages 7 – 18 the chance to learn, record and perform a virtual youth opera. The culminating video performance will be shared with family and friends at the end of the program. This 11-week program not only fosters artistic development and expression, but also provides youth with a fun, supportive environment to connect and collaborate with their peers. 

Youth Opera Online accepts everyone regardless of skill level. However, spots are limited, so register today! Seattle Opera is committed to racial equity. BIPOC students are encouraged to sign up, and financial assistance is available. 

More info and sign-up on Seattle Opera's website

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