HO‘IKE: Kamehameha Schools to perform Hawaiian opera at annual event

The gymnasium at Kamehameha Schools Hawaii will soon transform into a Big Island battle ground with a performance of “The Battle of Kuamo‘o,” an opera sung entirely in the Hawaiian language, during the school’s annual ho‘ike.

The 2019 ho‘ike is 6 p.m. Thursday, March 14 and Friday, March 15 at the school’s Koai‘a Gymnasium. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

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Written by high school choir director Herb Mahelona and first performed at the school’s 2014 ho‘ike, the opera begins months after the 1819 death of Kamehameha the Great, and follows the power struggle between Kamehameha II, Liholiho, and keeper of the war god, Kekuaokalani, according to information on the ho‘ike website.

After Liholiho decides not to reinstate the ‘ai kapu, in essence striking down the ancient religious system, Kekuaokalani, defender of the ancient gods, rises up in rebellion.

This leads to the battle of Kuamo‘o, a war between the traditional and modern, at the center of which is Manono, Kekuaokalani’s wife.

“They gave their lives for the system that they believed in, for the culture they believed in, so after that the culture changed radically,” Mahelona said.

Campus communications liaison Shaun Chillingworth said this is the 16th year KSH has done its ho‘ike; they’ve done Hawaiian language operas since 2013. “The Battle of Kuamo‘o” was the second opera the school did.

“They brought it back this year for a number of reasons,” Chillingworth said, adding that this year marks the 200th anniversary of that battle and the death of Kamehameha.

“It has to be done,” Mahelona said of the historic opera. “It has to be done because if we don’t do it, no one’s going to do it. … Somebody has to do it because no one’s going to tell these stories, no one’s going to know these stories. These kids are going to graduate and leave and know nothing about pivotal Hawaiian historical moments that happened right on this island.”

Mahelona said part of the importance of preserving Hawaiian history is that “Hawaiians know very little about their own culture.”

For decades, he said, “we were made to believe our history didn’t matter. … You don’t see it in any history books, you don’t learn it in school. It’s not validated. We’re taught that our history, our culture, our language is not valid.”

But now, Mahelona said Hawaiian language and culture is accepted, but the history is still largely unknown.

“And yet, the history is what makes us who we are,” he said. “You travel to Europe, Europeans are very proud of their thousands of years of history. They know who they are, where they came from, who all their monarchs were, who their leaders were, all the major battles, who they fought, who won, who lost and it makes them who they are. Our history makes us who we are, and part of recovering our identity — and I think we’re still recovering it — is uncovering that history, learning it, teaching it and celebrating it, and putting it in a form that other people can celebrate along with us.

“So it’s not just ‘this is our thing,’ this is like ‘hey, this is who we are. Recognize some of it?’” he continued. “… (There are) universal themes of change and identity, of tradition shaping who you are. It’s something everybody can relate to. I think Hawaiians need to realize what we have is valid to the rest of the world. It’s applicable. The struggles are universal. We’re not alone.”

Junior Kayla Enanoria, 17, will play the Kona Chiefess Manono in the re-telling.

“We get to learn so much about our culture that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to touch (on) as deeply (otherwise), because when we’re doing these types of shows we have to step into the roles of these characters and embody them,” she said.

Students end up sifting through different information for the specific alii and different people they may not have come across otherwise.

“This is just that source that opens up all those different avenues for research and for different connections to who we are.”

The ho‘ike performance will also serve as a fundraiser. In August, a group of students will travel to Scotland and stage the opera in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world.

Kamehameha Schools Hawaii first performed a different opera at the fringe festival in 2016.

Rather than writing a new opera, which takes “at least a couple years, we thought we’d just revisit one and kind of revamp it … and see how we can go deeper into the story, ” Mahelona said.

Returning to the festival is “terrifying,” said Mahelona. “The last time we went it was a big hit. … Nobody had seen anything like it.”

When he went to Scotland this past summer, “all anybody wanted to talk about was what we’re going to bring, is it an opera?” Mahelona said. “Expectations are so high. They’re expecting something mind-blowing, and I think their minds will be blown.”

Enanoria performed with the group in Scotland in 2016, the summer before her freshman year, and will return again for the repeat performance.

“It’s really interesting because it’s like I’m seeing it all from a different perspective now,” she said. The first time she went, she was a warrior and hula dancer in the cast.

“So to be able to be a part of it in a different way is really interesting.”

Being able to share a Hawaiian opera is a “huge milestone for us as a culture and a people,” because other cultures and languages have operas, which Enanoria said is like their “crown jewel of performing arts — where they get to present their language in that beautiful way.

“So for us to do the same for Hawaiian language is just this momentous occasion that we’re able to showcase, so I’m very excited to be a part of it.”

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On March 24, Mahelona said the Kamuela Philharmonic, where he plays cello, will also perform a symphonic suite based on the music from the opera and the Scotland cast will join and sing the last portion. That will take place at 4 p.m. at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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