Hawaii Opera Theatre Persists in the Pandemic With “Kanikapila”

Janos Gereben on January 4, 2021
Opera Kanikapila performers: pianist Eric Schank, baritone Quinn Kelsey, ukulele player Taimane, guitarist Rachel Look | Courtesy of Hawaii Opera Theatre


Quinn Kelsey is only 42, so he is decades away from “the end of all our exploring,” but like in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he has arrived at the point where he’s starting to “know the place for the first time.”

The baritone, who now goes by his full birthname of Quinn Kamakanalani Kelsey, was born in Honolulu, attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and began performing opera in 1991 as a chorus member of Hawaii Opera Theatre (HOT) — the unique company carrying the mantle of opera, whose history in the “youngest” state goes back to the 1850s.

Quinn Kelsey with Merola Opera Program Executive Director Jean Kellogg at Merola’s 60th anniversary gala | Credit: Merola Opera Program

Kelsey’s “explorations” included San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, the Ryan Opera Center in Chicago, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, debuts at SF Opera (La bohème in 2008, Il trovatore, Aida, Madama Butterfly, Attila, and the title role in Rigoletto in 2017) and at the Metropolitan Opera (Aida, La traviata), and roles in Europe.

And then just as Kelsey returned home, the pandemic struck, and HOT shut down. After months of frustration, a plan emerged for a multi-year project called Hapa (“mixed”) Opera, exploring how opera and local cultures can intersect. One of the programs under Hapa Opera is the inaugural Opera Kanikapila session, featuring Kelsey, ukulele virtuoso Taimane, pianist Eric Schank, and guitarist Rachel Look.

Kanikapila is a style of Hawaiian music produced in an impromptu jam session, most commonly taking place at a beach or family gathering. “Kani” means sound, “pila” is string instrument. In this series, HOT’s digital offering, opera singers are paired with local musicians from different cultures to explore ways to combine their art.

Streaming is scheduled for Jan. 29, at 1 p.m. HST (3 p.m. PST), from the HOT website. Tickets are $25.

Just as Kelsey has experience with folk and pop music in addition to opera, Taimane Tauiliili Bobby Gardner (who goes by her first name, which means diamond) performs classical music and opera along with her mainstays of Hawaiian and pop music.

Discovered at a young age by Don Ho and Jake Shimabukuro, the musician of Samoan, German, Irish, French, and Swedish ancestry became first a star on the Waikiki circuit but soon toured Japan and Hong Kong, was nominated for Ukulele Album of the Year, and was featured on Guitar World magazine’s Top 10 Ukulele Moments list.

Just as the pandemic hit, Taimane’s NPR Tiny Desk concert, from March 13, 2020, attracted more than 700,000 views.

Ukulele virtuoso Taimane performing in Opera Kanikapila | Courtesy of Hawaii Opera Theatre


The Jan. 29 HOT program includes:

  •  “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with Kelsey and Eric Schank
  •  “Fire,” composed by Taimane, with Taimane and Rachel Look
  •  “Scarborough Fair,” with Taimane and Kelsey
  •  The Count’s aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with Kelsey and Schank
  •  Taimane’s “E ala E/Jupiter,” with Taimane and Look
  •  “Carmen Medley,” arranged by Taimane, with Taimane and Look
  •  “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen, with Kelsey and Schank
  •  “Sau Fuga Sina,” traditional, arranged by Taimane, with Taimane and Kelsey
  •  “Hawaii Aloha,” lyrics by Rev. Lorenzo Lyons, music by James McGranahan, with Taimane and Kelsey