Q & A: Quinn Kelsey on Opera Kanikapila, Hawai’i Opera Theatre & Collaborating with Taimane Gardner

By Francisco Salazar

Last month the Hawaiʻi Opera Theatre’s inaugurated the Opera Kanikapila session.

The new series pairs opera singers with local musicians from different cultures to explore and combine their artistic abilities. Native Hawaiian Quinn Kelsey, one of opera’s leading baritones, inaugurated the series alongside Taimane Tauiliili Bobbie Gardner with a program of diverse operatic and Hawaiian music.

Kelsey is well known for his Verdi, Bel Canto, and Mozart interpretations and has performed in many great stages around the world including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Bayerische Staatsoper.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Kelsey about the Opera Kanikapila, returning to the Hawai’i Opera Theatre, and working with Taimane.

OperaWire: When did the Hawai’i Opera Theatre come up with the project and how did you get involved?

Quinn Kelsey: The pandemic started and so as so many companies around the country and across the world have been needing to do, the Hawai’i Opera Theatre has needed to expand across a digital internet platform to be able to continue to be connected to audiences in some way. So this is one of the projects that they came up with.

One of Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s main obstacles has always been to compete with the local culture. It’s not a negative thing at all but it’s a fact of the matter that the local culture is made up of the cultures that began at the start of the 20th century when landowners needed workers to work the pineapple, the sugarcane plantations, and the coffee plantations. So they brought contract laborers over from Japan, from China, and from the Philippines. There were some of the local populations that were used and then, of course, these people were made to live together in the worker’s camps and they all had to learn English in some way, shape, or forms because their bosses spoke English and they needed to understand what their bosses were saying. And then the only other major group that was a part of this community were the Portuguese who were hired to be the supervisors.

So you had a bunch of ethnic groups that were forced to learn to communicate with each other. And in doing this, all those cultures are going to become this melting pot. And in general, this is what makes up the local culture. There are tons of mixes. Some are part Japanese / part Hawaiian, part Philipino / part Japanese, and part Chinese / part Portuguese. And the mixes are just beautiful and they are some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen.

In Hawai’i, you can tell where people are from, and obviously, from their last name, you can tell their background and where they are from. Other than that, you can see the Hawaiian, the Asian, the Philipino and so throughout this community you see how everybody practices a little bit of the ethnicities. For example, the Japanese make you take off their shoes when you go to their homes, whenever there is a celebration, Hawaiians always throw a huge party. It’s a whole group of people who exhibit so many different cultures and it is beautiful to watch and see how it functions on its own. It defines the local population in Hawai’i but it presents a huge obstacle for classical music in Hawai’i.

Then of course classical music and opera in Hawai’i are very young. Hawai’i wasn’t discovered by the west until 1778 and then by the late 1880s to the early 1890s the last of the reigning monarchs brought classical music and opera. But it was just before the beginning of the 20th century. Opera and classical music go back easily 200 years before that. So it hasn’t been around long enough to gain a foothold in the state. It is a huge obstacle but the symphony and the opera house have done really well in their short period. The opera company has a lot of outreach and educational programs and it was where I got my start. I know it has been hard for HOT to exist in Hawai’i and these programs we are doing now are a good way to get out into the community more than they have in past programs.

OW: What is the premise of Opera Kanikapila?

QK: One of the premises for this project is to team up an opera singer with a local Hawaiian performer. So right away the challenges of merging those two genres just made it interesting. The two genres are so different and it forces you to be so creative in order to make sure that these two genres work in some way. And then, of course, I have never done anything like this before so in so many ways Taimane Tauiliili Bobbie Gardner and I had to make it up as we went along. We were writing the rules as we went.

And the only times that I felt uncomfortable at all were when we finished a song and I would look at her and I would say “is that okay? Did we do enough?” It was because we had nothing to go off of. We were doing it and if that was the most challenging part and then great.

OW: Do you have a folk music background? Was it something you grew up with?

QK: This was the one benefit. I never performed a lot of Hawaiian music growing up but it was definitely all around me and I did perform some in high school and college. It was a genre that I had loved for as far back as I could remember. So this was the one advantage and I am as familiar as I could be with this genre. It’s not foreign to me and that made me more comfortable working with someone like Taimane. I can also play the ukulele and that made the project easier. It also made the experience of choosing repertoire easier.

OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Taimane and how you guys came up with the program?

QK: Her music is very virtuosic and it is not an accompanying style and she is very much a soloist in this concert. She is the main focal point and her playing is very much the singing in this program. She arranges a lot of the music that she performs and she is very well known for taking popular melodies and things and putting her own spin on them with lots of pick work and the kind of solo music where they don’t just play chords and where you hear them picking or actively strumming the actual melody of a song. It’s a very aggressive style and I think that is what really works for her. She is able to reach a greater audience.

So when we were building the program we asked ourselves how we merge the performance styles and what kind of music we could do. Since she is Polynesian and I am part Hawaiian, we went for Hawaiian music that she is familiar with. One of the songs we chose is a song that is used to end programs in Hawaiian culture. It’s a song that when Hawaiians hear, they know it is the end of an evening. It’s a song that people use to draw the event to a close and it’s called “Hawaii Aloha” and it’s a very traditional song. That was always an obvious choice.

She picked a Samoan folk song and I picked Don Giovanni’s “Deh, vieni alla finestra” which is accompanied by a mandolin. I always had this idea that if I ever learned how to play the accompaniment on the ukulele, I wanted to do it. This was the perfect opportunity for her to do it with me. It worked and it is an instrument that definitely fits the accompaniment.

We also did Simon and Garfunkel and she did a medley of “Carmen” and it was nice that she sort of did her own version of “Carmen” and other interesting works.

OW: Tell me about the filming process and what it is like to perform for a camera?

QK: It’s different and definitely not what I am used to. I am used to being on a big stage where you can lose yourself in that you cannot see each individual face. But with a camera, you have to focus as if you can see everyone’s face. It is much more intimate wherein on a big stage it is not. I try to take opportunities to perform in front of a camera or recording just to once again get comfortable and it was very healthy to be in that situation and to focus differently than I ever had. On a stage, my focus is much broader but in front of a camera, it had to be sharper. In so many ways a stage is more comfortable. But I will always look forward to doing anything like this because it keeps me going.

OW: What was something you learned by doing this collaboration with Taimane?

QK: I think it was just a practice in forcing myself out of my comfort zone and forcing myself to think in an environment that isn’t completely my own. Culturally it is my own but I haven’t been exposed enough to my culture through the music because I haven’t been able to perform enough of it. Most of my performing has been in classical music and opera. This gave a nice taste of bridging that gap and connecting more to that culture on a personal level. Taimane was very gracious and easy to work with and she brought so much to it.

It was a challenge that I really appreciated and it was the opportunity to work with someone as I would have with another opera singer. I felt like we were on level ground and I really enjoyed it and felt like I got a lot out of it. I also think I opened the door in order to access my own culture more. I hope this project takes off in a great way.


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