KAILUA-KONA — From Waimea to Scotland, composer Herb Mahelona is giving the world a taste of what a Hawaiian-language opera is all about.
The world premiere of a half-hour symphonic suite taken from Mahelona’s opera “The Battle of Kuamoo” will be performed by the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Kahilu Theatre, with the orchestra accompanied by performers from Kamehameha Schools in Keaau.
It’s just one stop this year for “The Battle of Kuamoo,” which will see a much larger venue this summer. In August, 25 students from Kamehameha Schools will travel to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual performing arts festival in Scotland, to perform the opera in front of a worldwide audience.
“It’s the largest performing arts festival in the world,” Mahelona said. “Every August, they host 3,000 to 4,000 separate acts that converge in Edinburgh. When I went last year, I think there was about 3,800 acts you could see, and that’s 3,800 individual shows you can watch throughout the month of August. So we’ll be one of those over 3,000 shows. And the only show all in Hawaiian.”
The entire opera was performed last week by all 575 high school students at Kamehameha Schools in Keaau, and the 25 chosen to perform in Scotland will also perform on June 15 at the University of Hawaii – Hilo with the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra. The music will be recorded and taken to Scotland with Mahelona and the students to use as the soundtrack during their performance.
It’s not the first time Mahelona and Kamehameha Schools have teamed up to perform one of his nine operas abroad. In 2016, the students performed Mahelona’s opera “Haupu,” at the same festival. It was the first Hawaiian-language piece performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“In 2016, we decided to take a Hawaiian opera. We decided to gamble, that we would just do it all in Hawaiian, and work really hard to make the emotional beats discernible, and see if people could get something out of it,” Mahelona said. “And it was a huge hit. The kids were the celebrities of the festival.”
Mahelona said the ties between Scotland and Hawaii run deeper than what people may know. Kaiulani, Crown Princess of the Hawaiian Islands from 1875-1899, was part Scottish, as her father was a Scottish financier from Edinburgh.
“When we went there last time, in 2016, there was a whole contingent of people that came to meet us. They are descendants of the people that welcomed the Hawaiian royalty when they traveled to Scotland,” Mahelona said. “They took us to all the places the kings, queens and princesses had visited, and they had gifts that had been left behind for them by Hawaiian royalty.
“I’m proud of that connection.”
A part of the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season finale concert Sunday, titled “Of History and Nature,” Mahelona created the half-hour suite specifically for the orchestra, combining the most emotional parts of the opera together and condensing the story down to fit in the orchestra’s performance.
The suite will be accompanied by performances from the orchestra of a selection from the opera “Nabucco” by Giuseppe Verdi and of Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 2.”
“I wrote the opera in 2014, and we are revisiting it because this year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Kuamoo, which was in November 1819,” said Mahelona, who also plays cello with the orchestra.
The Battle of Kuamoo had Hawaiian forces fighting over the abandonment of the traditional kapu religious system, which determined the laws and regulations of Hawaii at the time. Kekuaokalani, nephew of Kamehameha I, sought to preserve the traditional system, and battled against his cousin, Liholiho (Kamehameha II), who had abandoned the kapu system. Kekuaokalani and his wife, Chiefess Manono, both died in the conflict.
The battle took place in Kuamoo Bay, near Keauhou on Hawaii Island, and the Kuamoo Burials was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The significance of the battle to Hawaii Island and Native Hawaiians is what makes the opera “The Battle of Kuamoo” stand out to Mahelona from the others he has written.
“This opera is special to me because it took place on this island, and it’s part of the history of this island,” Mahelona said. “It really defines who modern Hawaiians are in terms of identity, and it was a major turning point in Hawaiian history. Because that’s when we began to lose our identity, when the very social system that held us together and defined who we were and who we were supposed to be was completely erased, just overnight.”
Mahelona said he visited the battlefield in 2014 when he was writing the opera, and it was suggested to him that the story focused on the love story between Kekuaokalani and Chiefess Manono.
“That’s how a lot of the music came to me, and the love story is kind of central to the opera,” Mahelona said. “Even though it’s about a battle, it’s also about people fighting for the things they love. I think that makes it emotionally powerful.”
Info: Tickets for Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra’s season finale “Of History and Nature” are $50/$40/$30/$15. They may be purchased online at kamuelaphil.org, through the Kahilu Theatre box office, or by calling 885-6868.