Hawai‘i Opera Theatre: Tales of Hoffmann and Akina

Apr 14, 2017

Conductor Vincent de Kort, with hand raised and Henry Akina, Artistic Director for the Hawai‘i Opera Theatre, seated in foreground, leading a rehearsal for "Tales of Hofmann." The all-original HOT production runs April 21, 23, and 25, 2017 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Credit HOT

One of the most popular operas in the entire repertory, Tales of Hoffmann, will close Hawai‘i Opera Theatre’s 2016-17 season.  Live projections and a roster of fine voices mark this all original production, the last with Artistic Director Henry Akina at the helm.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa spoke to him about his tenure in Hawai‘i opera.

Hawai‘i Opera Theatre Artistic Director Henry Akina left his company in Germany, the Berlin Chamber Opera, to lead HOT. His first productions for HOT began in 1996. Seen here, in the familiar rehearsal studio, Akina will retire at the end of May, 2017.
Credit Courtesy of Hawaii Opera Theatre

Hawai‘i Opera Theatre presents Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann,( in French with English supertitles,)  April 21st, 23rd, and 25th 2017 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.   This full length opera is based on three stories by a German/Prussian author of fantasies and Gothic horror, E.T.A. Hoffmann.  In this opera, the protagonist, Hoffmann, a poet, vividly recalls his past loves in a bar, wrecking his current relationship in the process.  He's left with the muse of Poetry. 

Hawai‘i Opera Theatre Artistic Director Henry Akina spent twenty years in Berlin, a town with five opera companies.  Akina led the Berlin Chamber Opera for fifteen years, directing over fifty operas, including four world premieres.  When he returned to Hawai‘i to lead HOT, he was one of my first interviews.

Action sequence in the HOT rehearsal hall for Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann.
Credit Courtesy of Hawaii Opera Theatre

“Hawai‘i opera seemed a little bit backward, but this is a great company to work for, with.  My first thing was the repertoire, to get the repertoire up to speed, and then to try and get the people up to speed.  In terms of things that we were doing that no one else could do.  Things like The Mikado in 3D, Tristan und Isolde for the first time in Hawai‘i, Macbeth for the first time in Hawai‘i, things like that.”

Introducing opera requires guts and persistence. 

“I founded an opera studio that is training young Hawaiians to make the opera more local, more acceptable to local people.  But we have something in Honolulu called the brain drain, where people like yourself go away for a while and come back later.  I did that too, but I would not recommend that to everyone.”

What would you recommend?

“Staying away and enjoying life as it is elsewhere, as well as here.  Rethinking my life in terms of retirement, I think I would have done as well retiring and staying away as I would have coming back?”

How so?

“Financially and materially and in ways that I couldn’t explain to you now but that are very seminal to me now.”

You feel you perhaps should have continued to work in Berlin? 

“Yes.  But as it was, I traded Berlin for Hawai‘i because I was from Hawai‘i and knew Hawai‘i and loved Hawai‘i, I think that that blinded me to a lot of things that Berlin had to offer.”

Like state supported arts, a vibrant raucous art/theatre scene, creatives at their edgiest? Maybe rare here.

“Getting people to go at all is a work in progress.  We’re making inroads, but slowly.”

Right now, Akina is directing his final production for HOT.  Is there anything you’d still like to do?   

“With this company, I don’t think so.  I think it’s time for new blood, that’s one of the reasons I’m stepping down.  There’s a disease, progressive supranuclear palsy that I’ve been diagnosed with.  Supposedly there is no cure for it.” 

What happens?

“You fall down a lot.  You usually die from a fall, but it really doesn’t occur until age and beauty intersect.” (Laughs)

This is cramping your style a bit?

“A bit, and as far as running a company, impossible.”

How about your brain, how do you feel?

“My brain is still functioning.  That’s why I can do Hoffmann, but I couldn’t do another piece.”

You did Hoffmann in 2001, I still remember it.  Kelsey.  “Quinn (Kelsey) was Luther and the chorus was obstreperous.”

Any new ideas?

“We have three different women playing the three loves of Hoffmann.  It’s been quite a challenge to make that work with the same man there all the time.  It has to do with Hoffmann’s view of women, which is not the best.”

This time it’s an all original production, right?

“The new projections of Adam Larsen are wonderful and people will really respond well to them.”

Well into our interview, Mr. Akina reflected on how hospitable Honolulu is/is not for artists.  His candor is important for any creative in the islands:

“We have something in Honolulu called the Brain Drain, where people like yourself go away for a while and come back, later in life.  I did that too, but I would not recommend that to everyone.”

Rehearsing a scene for HOT's Tales of Hoffmann.
Credit Courtesy of Hawaii Opera Theatre

What would you recommend?

“Staying away, and enjoying life as it is elsewhere, as well as here.  Rethinking my life in terms of retirement, I think that I would have done as well, retiring the same way, as I would have coming back.  Financially and materially and (pause) in ways that I couldn’t explain to you now but that are very seminal to me now.”

You feel you perhaps should have continued your work in Berlin?

“Yes.  But I don’t know if that would have gone on or not, and how it would have gone on, but I think that would have been a fair way to go.  But as it was, I traded Berlin for Hawai‘i and because I was from Hawai‘i and knew Hawai‘i and loved Hawai‘I, I think that blinded me to a lot of things Berlin had to offer.”

Things you had to create here.

“Or things that were created for me, here, but that I didn’t subscribe to at the time.”

Could you produce the operas, the works that for you personally would have advanced your trajectory, here?

“I think it advanced as far as it could here, but one of the ways we can do that is by reinventing the repertoire here and now for a new audience.”

You’ve thought so much about this, how to develop new audiences, how to bring the audiences we currently have along with the new music, how are we going to do this?

“I think that one has to offer new things, and new things for Hawai‘i are not new, but they’re in the repertoire as great works and they should be exposed to great works, like we brought the Dialogues of the Carmelites, Three Decembers, and Siren Song to Hawai‘i but they didn’t do as well as we had hoped. But we hope people will realize their qualities as well as their disadvantages.  They’re unhappy plots, we hear that a lot.  They’re unhappy, they’re not worthy of local appreciation, but I think they are.”

You what’s hard is getting people to go twice, which is kind of what it will take. 

“Getting people to go at all is kind of a work in progress.  We’re making inroads, but slowly.”

You’re a style maven in our town, did you know that?

"No" (laugh.)

You help create the style of this town. So how does Honolulu feel to you now?

“It feels a little retrograde, but that may be me personally.”

In terms of what?

“’In terms of people checking up on each other and people really being responsible to each other.”

And that’s a good thing?

“It might be, or it might be a bad thing depending on who’s behind what.”

Are you looking forward to retiring?

“Yes, in a weird way, because I think I’ve done much that I could do here, as much as could be done with the community and with the people here.”

Thank you so much.

“It’s my pleasure.”

Do you have any hopes for opera in our town, for HOT?

“I’ve said opera is the most exciting form of theater that there is and it should be acknowledged as such.”

You’re leaving at kind of a high point.

“Well, they say one should leave at a high point rather than a low point.”

Do you like Honolulu, are you liking Honolulu?

“Yeah, as a town, it‘s certainly got some things the windward side didn’t have but it still leaves a lot to be desired.”

What do you think you will do now?

“I’m retiring and hopefully volunteering for an opera company somewhere but we don’t know where yet.”

Mahalo nui, Henry Akina!