Hawaii Arts Alliance

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Marilyn Cristofori

 

For 24 years, Marilyn Cristofori headed the Hawai‘i Arts Alliance, a statewide nonprofit that champions the arts through advocacy and education. Upon Cristofori’s retirement, the very nonprofit she headed selected her as its 2017 Alfred Preis Honoree for her lifetime support and leadership in the arts. In this conversation, she recounts her experiences as a dancer, a university educator and a nonprofit leader.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, July 8, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Marilyn Cristofori Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Once upon a time, arts was considered a basic part of life.

 

M-hm.

 

A formal piece of education.

 

And it still is. Because what we do at the Arts Alliance is … the big picture. But if you want to be a ballet dancer, you’ve got to get your body to a ballet studio and stand at the ballet barre, and learn … that particular discipline. If you want to be an opera singer, you’re not gonna do it … in a school classroom.

 

M-hm.

 

I mean, you can be exposed to it, you can learn about it, you can … the history and the composers, and so on, and so forth. But if you want to be a performer or a creator of that discipline … gotta go there. There is no other choice.

 

Marilyn Cristofori headed the Hawai‘i Arts Alliance for twenty-four years. Upon her retirement, she was selected as the 2017 Alfred Preis Honoree. That was a prestigious acknowledgement of her lifetime support and leadership in the arts. She joins fellow Preis Honorees next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing

people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Marilyn Cristofori always knew she’d have at least two careers, because she started out as a dancer, a calling prone to injuries and other physical wear and tear. Next, Cristofori became a university dance teacher. And then, she enjoyed a long third career heading a nonprofit organization advocating for arts. Upon retirement, she was named 2017’s Preis Honoree for her arts achievements by the very organization she headed, Hawai‘i Arts Alliance. She joined a long line of distinguished honorees, many of whom she helped to select. We’ll revisit some of these arts champions during the half hour, and get to know Marilyn Cristofori. As a child, she spent summers and many other times away from her family home in Sacramento because her mother was often ill. Young Marilyn would stay with her grandmother in the Bay Area.

 

I loved my grandmother. It made me identify with the things that were part of that life. And I loved it. San Francisco.

 

Italian?

 

Italian. She loved the opera, I loved the opera. I can’t sing, but she loved the opera; she always played opera in the house.

 

And you were the only child in the house?

 

The only; yeah. She had three children, my mother being one of them, but they were all grown up. I was the only young child. My grandmother did not intend to raise another child; that was one of those … it happened.

 

And you felt at home at school, and at your grandmother’s house?

 

I felt very at home at my grandmother’s house, and I adjusted to my other home.

 

Was your grandmother your most formative influence, then, as a child?

 

I consider her that; m-hm. Yeah.

 

Did she give you any explicit advice about the future?

 

Oh, god. She was … a woman of her era. And I think the year she got married, the women’s vote was finally put in, and she was determined I was gonna get an education.

 

Did she know how she would pay for it, or anyone would pay for it?

 

Oh, no. I just had to get good grades and earn a scholarship.

 

So, you knew that from an early age?

 

M-hm.

 

That you were gonna go to college through a scholarship, and you were gonna make the grade to do it.

 

Yeah.

 

Did you know what you wanted to do?

 

When I was raised, Leslie, there was the idea that as a woman, you did nursing or teaching, or mothering, or sometimes a secretary, and occasionally you might have another profession. But those were the main ones. So, I thought I was gonna be a teacher.

 

M-hm. And you did get a BA in education.

 

I did.

 

From a very good college.

 

I did.

 

You got into Stanford.

 

Yeah.

 

On scholarship?

 

Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

At that point in time, it was kind of fun, because women were still new to Stanford, so the ratio was about four to one. So, it was a great experience.

 

Lots of men. And did—

 

And I was young, so …

 

Did you feel younger than eighteen?

 

I was twenty when I graduated.

 

Oh; how did you get into college so early?

 

Well, when I was much younger, and all that shuffling back and forth to my grandmother’s and so on, they skipped me a full grade in school.

 

Wow. So, you graduated from Stanford University at age twenty.

 

Yeah.

 

As a … teacher.

 

Teacher. Yeah. And then, we had an opportunity to take a trip to Europe. And … I thought, that would be fun.

 

We, meaning you and …

 

And some … Stanford colleagues.

 

M-hm.

 

And a professor was doing the trip, and it was like a big deal. We had to go to New York and change planes, and fly over Iceland, and go to London. That was my first time out of California.

 

And you actually—

 

I didn’t come back for five and a half years.

 

Is that right?

 

I discovered dancing, which I had been doing all my life, but I didn’t know that I really wanted to do it.

 

What kind of dancing were you doing?

 

I was doing ballet at that time. So, then, I wanted to be a dancer, but I had gotten a full scholarship to what was then Radcliff at Harvard Business School. Why did I apply to Harvard Business School? Because the guy that I had a crush on applied to Harvard Business School. I thought it would be fun to go. And I went to Europe, and I decided I really didn’t want to go, and I knew that I could always go to business school, but I couldn’t always dance. So, I stayed in Europe.

 

And where did you dance?

 

I danced in Rome, and I danced in London, mainly. Those were the two.

 

And what was it about your experience in Europe that caused—you left the boyfriend behind too; right?

 

Yeah. But another one came along.

 

And is that part of the reason for staying in Europe, or was it—

 

Yeah.

 

–sheer dance, or a combination?

 

Well, part of it. Because he decided to go to London School of Economics, so we got married. I was working in a contemporary company. And I went to ballet classes, and I went to the Royal Ballet. I was not working as a professional ballet dancer in London. I experienced a lot of it, and that was what I knew. So, when I came back to San Francisco, I then was with San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera Ballet, Pacific Ballet, and Lathrop Contemporary Company. So then, I worked as a professional dancer. And because I was still young enough, since I had graduated so young, I was able to do it, and have … a fairly decent career.

 

What other types of dancing did you do?

 

Then, I did contemporary.

 

Which was freeform …

 

Well, modern dance. And that’s why I got involved until I … I needed to get a job, and became a professor and academic, and you’re supposed to write a book. And what did I do instead? I didn’t want to write a book; I made … documentaries for PBS about famous dancers. And so, I got very involved with that part of things.

 

And you felt passionate about a number of things, it sounds like.

 

Yeah; yeah. Well, I loved dancing. That’s definitely my first love. But every dancer needs at least two careers.

 

And you know that, going in.

 

Well, because you can’t dance beyond a certain age … adequately. I got to be a professor, I got to teach. And then, I went to business … eventually.

 

Because that’s what you were going to do years before. You know, it’s not a natural jump, it doesn’t sound like, to go from dancing to professor of dance, to an MBA at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

 

At least in my day, it was more natural to go from a professional dance career, or to parallel with teaching, and to move into academia.

 

You were a professor, and then, you left California and came here. Why?

 

Because I married … Gregg Lizenbery, my husband, and he got offered the position to be director of dance at UH Mānoa. So, I had taken an early retirement, and then it just so happened he got offered that position. And then, we moved here. That was almost three decades ago. I did not look for my career with the Arts Alliance. But after we moved here, we realized that the cost of living was a little bit different than we were used to.

 

M-hm.

 

And so, I had thought: Oh, I’m retired, I’ll just … but that didn’t work. So, I needed to find a position. That’s what I did. So, for a while, I worked part-time for the Arts Alliance, and part-time for Early Childhood, and made them partners. And then, when I was into the position at Arts Alliance, I realized that I would hit a ceiling if I didn’t get a new skillset. Which is why I went to business school.

 

After receiving her executive master of business degree from the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawai‘i, Marilyn Cristofori felt she had all the tools necessary to grow the Hawai‘i Arts Alliance.

 

How do you get funding for the arts?

 

Oh … so many ways. One of the biggest, biggest … important things that people don’t always get. I find when I say to somebody “arts”, the shade comes down, and what they see is a painting on a wall in a museum.

 

M-hm.

 

Or they remember, because there used to be arts in the school curriculum, when they were in school as a child; they had a music class and they had a drawing class, and they had maybe sometimes a dance class, and they could be in their … high school production, theater production. And they remember those things, and they don’t know that it’s not there anymore.

 

Mm.

 

So, you have to tell them … No, it’s not been there for quite a while.

 

Do public schools have virtually no arts classes? Is that what you’re saying?

 

Not exactly. It’s heading upwards, but mostly, one of the things the Arts Alliance does now, partners with the State arts agency to run what we call Artists in the Schools.

 

M-hm.

 

And that’s … funded by public monies for public schools.

 

But how do you argue the case when lawmakers or charitable organizations are saying: Look, I mean, we need to support the basics; reading, writing, and arithmetic, and computer technology. We can’t do art; that’s something you’ve gotta get on your own.

 

One of the biggest convincing arguments has to do with brain research. And they’ve done a lot of research to find out—one of my favorite studies was done, a longevity study. And they followed kids in high school who were either in like boy scouts or girl scouts, or some other community service organization, and where there school arts event in some way, whether it was after school or in school, or if they were in sports. And then, they followed them for … ten years, and how did they do ten years later, by which time they were usually married with some kids, and in a career of some kind. The ones that were happiest, most successful, had come from the arts. So, then they looked further back into that, and they examined what happens when you have those … experiences as a child.

 

M-hm.

 

That it shapes your brain differently. You have those connections, neuropathways. And if they aren’t formed by a certain age, usually puberty, they kind of wither and die on the vine.

 

It’s a key to happiness.

 

A key to happiness and success in life. So, that’s why back in ancient days now … arts were considered to part of the curriculum. So, the big deal is to get it during the formative years. So, right now, the way our Hawaii school system is built, by the time … children go into high school … there are art teachers, and music teachers, and band, and there are options, after school performing arts centers, all of which work very, very well. But a lot of the times, the kids that want to do those things didn’t have them when they were young, and so, they don’t have competitive skills to be involved. We teach about the arts and how the arts can enrich an experience and change your life.

 

How big is the Hawai‘i Arts Alliance? How many staffers?

 

Well, we’re all the way up to seven.

 

Seven staffers; and what’s your budget?

 

I took over in ’94.

 

’94; okay.

 

Yeah. So … it was thirty thousand. And I said: That won’t do. And then, we got up to … it’s varied, depending on what comes … from national, mostly. Not two million; just under two million. But that was a good jump. It needs to now double again. I feel really good about … we have a base that’s established in the education part. And there’s something to work with, and expand, and go to, and staying with education is essential.

 

You mentioned three careers, and it’s a very long work record. I don’t know what seventy-seven looks like, but to me, you don’t look like you’re seventy-seven years old.

 

I really am. And a half.

 

Do you feel it?

 

Starting to happen.

 

Marilyn Cristofori was the thirty-seventh recipient of the Alfred Preis Honors for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. In the past, we’ve featured other Preis Honorees on Long Story Short. We look back now at three recent recipients, and their contributions.

 

Sarah Richards was the 2015 Preis Honoree. As president of the Hawai‘i Theatre Center for a quarter of a century, she spearheaded an historic restoration, transforming the once dilapidated theater into a national award-winning performance center. A former college dean of students, Sarah Richards switched careers and actually succeeded the legendary architect Alfred Preis himself as chief of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.

 

You succeeded a man who has got a lot of aura around him in history.

 

Yes.

 

Alfred Preis.

 

Right.

 

As head of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.

 

Right.

 

In 1980?

 

1980; m-hm.

 

What was he like? Did you know him before you took over?

 

I got to know him. He was a wonderful man. He was a Prussian architect. And so, he was very Prussian in character, in modus operandi. And he was the one who really initiated the Art in Public Places program, really, on a European model. He was a lovely man, with a great vision.

 

And when it was time for him to step down, the foundation looked for somebody who was a good administrator, and who could handle the strong voices in the arts community.

 

Yes.

 

And they selected you to do that.

 

They did; they did.

 

What kind of strong voices?

 

Oh, well, the arts, as you know, because the State Foundation dealt with all the arts, whether it was visual arts, performing arts, literary arts. And so, there was a lot of variety of art groups we were dealing with. And of course, since we were the granting agency, we had a lot of very personal contacts with how much money grants were gonna be given to what groups.

 

Right; and projects are like babies.

 

Oh, yes; oh, yes.

 

You give money to one, and it’s my baby.

 

That’s right.

 

You know, it seems like a dream job to have all this money that you can give to wonderful art projects. But you probably are under criticism, no matter what you do.

 

Oh, yes. Giving away money is not just a piece of cake. You need to be clear on what your mission is, what you want to accomplish, and then also who makes decisions and who are qualified to make decisions. It wasn’t just sort of, Here’s some money. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in the eye of the creator. But there are certain standards that the art community has, and that’s why you ask a group of knowledgeable people to review and make a judgment. We were proud we were number one in the nation in per capita state support. So, we did a fair amount of lobbying the State Legislature, and also getting money from the federal government.

 

You’re a very determined person, aren’t you?

 

I am determined.

 

You’re very goal-oriented.

 

I was very goal-oriented; yes, I was. Yes.

 

And you’re a missioned person.

 

Yeah.

 

Here’s 2016 Preis Honoree, Michael Titterton, former president and general manager of Hawaii Public Radio. Under his leadership, HPR expanded its broadcast reach across the State.

 

You got your master’s degree in public speaking and rhetoric.

 

Rhetoric; yes.

 

Why did you choose that?

 

Bear in mind, this is the very, very early 70s. It’s 1971, actually. And … coming into ’72, and I knew the U.S. was … I mean, this was … social mobility was here, and that’s what I was really after. I didn’t know it at that time, ‘cause I didn’t know the words. But social mobility. And meritocracy. You know, if you work hard, you can get places. And that’s really what everybody dreams about, when they dream about America, when they’re not from here. If I was going to understand this place, the quickest way to do it might be to study the media, because that seemed to be the bottleneck through which everything passed. And it was a very busy bottleneck at that point. Watergate, for example, Vietnam War, all the unrest on college campuses. Glorious time. And all of it was being fed through a media, which was under suspicion, as much of it is now. And so, I specialized in that.

 

And you’d already had experienced storytelling, because you had stories to tell along the way.

 

Well, everybody does. Yeah. Just because of the basic courses that I had to then take as part of being in the rhetoric program, I began to learn something about the mechanics of storytelling, if you like, the idea of a narrative arc. And I was very quickly drafted into teaching public speaking. So yeah, that was … I hadn’t really thought about it, actually, as being part of the whole storytelling business, but I seem to keep coming back to that. But that’s what it is, that’s what life is; it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

And sometimes, you do things without having a name for it; right? And then, you find out—

 

Oh, yes; most of the time, actually.

 

Your real self keeps popping up in the form of what you do.

 

Yes; that is true. That is true. But storytelling … I guess that’s a lot of the attraction that I have, or that radio has for me, because it’s a storytelling medium, and storytelling is … there’s very few human behaviors that that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized.

 

And radio has that intimate quality.

 

Mm. It’s a one-to-one medium, and it’s frighteningly intimate. And the best radio is indistinguishable from pillow talk. It’s that intimate. And that’s what I love about it. I mean, what’s not to love?

 

Henry Akina, who retired from the Hawaii Opera Theater, was the 2014 Preis Honoree. Born and raised in Honolulu, Henry Akina spent much of his adult life directing opera in prestigious opera houses around the world. He even founded an opera company in Berlin, before moving back home to Hawai‘i. Under the guidance of its first ever Hawai‘i-born artistic director, the Hawaii Opera Theater became known for vibrant, creative productions, sometimes incorporating modern updates and collaborations with top international artists.

 

I love that approach, in a sense modernizing with Harajuku costumes.

 

You’re referring to The Mikado, then.

 

Yeah, Mikado.

 

Right; yeah.

 

And you feel free to do that. You don’t take the same opera and present it again. You add new touches. You’ve had Anne Namba’s designs, you’ve had Dean Shibuya change things up.

 

We have a resident designer at HOT, Peter Dean Beck, who’s resident in New York, but who’s nonetheless been seminal for design here.

 

How do audiences feel about those changes?

 

I’m not sure. You know, people say nice things to me, so I’m assuming that they’re honest about those things. But I think that the audiences in Hawaii respond well to good stories, and we try and make good stories wherever we are, from wherever we are.

 

Do you look for ways to take a classic story and localize it or modernize it?

 

Well, modernize it, perhaps. Localize it, not so much. But modernize it, perhaps. And in the case of Mikado, for instance, we knew that we couldn’t go backwards; we had to go forwards. And we had to look at the Japan of today, which was a lot different than the first time we did Mikado, which was ten years ago.

 

So, in ten years, it changed.

 

In ten years, life has changed. Yeah.

 

Did audiences know Harajuku girls? Because that was the play.

 

I think that we tried to let the audience know that we were doing the style. But you’ll have to ask Anne about the Harajuku things, because it was based on one of Anne’s trips to Japan. But I think that in contemporary life, we would be someplace else in ten years.

 

Right. I think she reimagined those characters as hip shoppers out for retail therapy.

 

She did; she did. And using cell phones every five minutes. Right. And using an iPad; things like that. So, whatever we’re using in ten years will be reflected in the staging.

 

You’ve already been announced, I believe, as the 2014 Preis Honoree in Arts, which is a tremendous honor, probably the largest honor we have in Hawai‘i in arts.

 

Well, I knew Alfred Preis, and I think that that’s … I was saying that, you know, people who know me well don’t expect this honor. And I didn’t expect it, either.

 

Why? Why didn’t you expect it? I wasn’t surprised to hear that you were named.

 

Well, I was, in a weird way. And I went to a board member, Jean Rolles, who had been honored herself. And she said: You will do it for this organization. And since then, I have decided that I will do it for the organization.

 

Congratulations to 2017 Preis Honoree Marilyn Cristofori of Hawai‘i Kai. And mahalo to all of the recipients of this award over the years for the work you’ve done to advance the arts and keep them vibrant in Hawai‘i. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

The key thing, whatever you’re doing … is to support creativity in our society as a whole. Keep your passion about creativity, and moving forward with what is right … what is just, and what helps everybody. ‘Cause if we don’t preserve our creativity … the rest of it doesn’t matter.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie

Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with

Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to contribute so far to education. We’ve been able to create and move forward significantly with Arts First and get admirable, high quality arts back in the schools, particularly elementary schools. So, I’m really feeling good about that.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Michael Titterton

 

Born into a struggling family in the east end of London, books and radio offered young Michael Titterton a glimpse into a different life. His insatiable curiosity led him to travel around the world, eventually landing him in Hawai‘i, where he took on the challenge of turning around a faltering Hawai‘i Public Radio. Under his leadership as President and General Manager, HPR has grown into the vital and trusted radio network it is today, serving the entire state. This month, Hawai‘i Arts Alliance will be recognizing Titterton as their 2016 Alfred Preis Honoree for his lifetime support of the arts.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Sept. 10, at 4:00 pm.

 

Michael Titterton Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

There are very few human behaviors that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. Any time we pass knowledge from generation to generation, you know, if we don’t have a written language or anything, which we haven’t for most of the history … and it’s how we bond. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized. That’s what life is; it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

Michael Titterton has been in the business of storytelling most of his life. Yet, it’s only one of the many skills that he needed to transform Hawaii Public Radio from a small faltering station into a robust statewide network. Michael Titterton, distinguished 2016 Alfred Preiss Honoree, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Michael Andrew Titterton moved to Hawai‘i in 1999 to take over as president and general manager of Hawaii Public Radio. Under his leadership, HPR expanded its reach as a vital community resource, broadcasting on every island, and serving the entire state. He stepped down in June of 2016. This conversation took place six months later, after he did some traveling with his wife, artist Madeleine McKay. Travel and moving on have always been Michael Titterton’s passion. In fact, his time in Hawaii was to be just another stop in his roaming life journey. But after ending seventeen years at Hawaii Public Radio, he’s still living happily in Honolulu. Michael Titterton started out life in postwar London. He’s restrained in that very English way, in the way he describes tough times.

 

At the time I was growing up, the part of the east end that I grew up in was the most populated, most densely populated urban area in the world, with the exception of Calcutta. I was born immediately after World War II. And the east end of London being industrial, was an area that was a focus of attention for the German air force during World War II and so, a great deal of bomb damage. Every block, you know, for as far as I can remember had houses that were missing or that were just walls. You know, earliest memories is walking around the block and looking at houses, and into rooms that had two walls left, and the other two walls were gone, so you could look in and see pictures still hanging on the wall, and wallpaper, and looking into people’s intimate lives. And it was a routine, very routine occurrence. Never thought it was odd.

 

Did you feel unsafe?

 

No, not at all. Not at all.

 

So, it was kind of a homogenous diverse neighborhood?

 

Not that diverse; it was mostly Irish.

 

And your family is, by background, Irish as well?

 

No; not at all. My father is English, my mother is Welsh. So, you know, yeah, we were outliers, I suppose. But it never really seemed that way. Life was sufficiently challenging that you didn’t give any thought to social standing, or any of that. It was later in life, I became acutely aware of it, and acutely aware that I was motivated to leave. I didn’t want to stay there. Once I became aware that everybody didn’t live this way, then I began to form the idea of a wall that I had to sort of scale and get over, and I tried all sorts of ways to do that.

 

Did you feel deprived of anything as you were growing up?

 

Only books. My my father was not an unintelligent man, but he was very uneducated and was quite defensive about that. And he wouldn’t have books in the house.

 

Oh … and you loved books?

 

Yes, perversely, as one does, you know, forbidden fruit.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And … yeah. I developed a relationship with the local library, and smuggled books into the house. And I’ve had a romance with books ever since. And that was how I found out, ultimately. That, and radio. That, and radio.

 

That’s how you found out that you were living a life that many people did not live.

 

Yes, yes, yes. It was my first glimpse over the wall. And it was an intoxicating one, and it’s one from which I’ve never sobered up, at all.

 

So, how did you scale that wall to get out of the east end?

 

Oh, well, I left school at fifteen, as everyone did. Moved out on my own. I did an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker. Factories, you know, was the thing. You went on the line, or you learned a trade.

 

Was it expected that that’s pretty much what you would do?

 

M-hm; that, or become a criminal, which was quite popular option. But that was the skill that I had early on, and I parlayed that into a little business which I ran for a while, making specialty parts for racing engines. Very long story; we don’t have time for that.

 

Because you love autos, too; right?

 

Well, it was an automobile environment. Dagenham was the principal factory area where I grew up. And that’s the Ford Motor Company. And it was all about automobiles, and you know, this was the 50s. And yeah, I have gasoline in my veins, I think.

 

So, you did build a business.

 

I built a little business. Just a very modest thing, but it was quite successful in a surprisingly short amount of time. But I had no judgement; I was very young.   And I took in a partner who brought in a little capital which I desperately needed. And he developed a romantic association with another one of the employees, and they disappeared to Australia with all the fluid assets of the company. And that got me quite vexed. [CHUCKLE] And actually exhausted the last of my patience, and I liquidated everything. Sold off machinery and whatnot to make payroll, couple other people working for me. And I was reduced to a minivan and a couple of sleeping bags, and I took off to Europe. I just wanted to be anywhere other than England at that point. I was just really quite over it.

 

Without much more than the clothes on his back, Michael Titterton left home. He had no plan, other than to see the world. Now, he didn’t have to mention to us his stint in a foreign jail over an incident involving the concentrated form of marijuana, known as hashish, but he did. Because that’s part of his story, and he is a storyteller.

 

I just took the ferry across to France, to Callet. And spent little over two years, I think, going from place to place. North Africa, Middle East, and Europe, Western Europe, doing odd jobs.

 

What were some of your odd jobs?

 

Oh, working in garages. I could always pick that up. A a job in Marseilles for a while, cleaning boats, you know. I had a job on a trawler in the North Sea, and some disgusting adventures.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That you don’t want to hear about. Just things like that. And then, every now and again, I’d go back to Dagenham and I’d get a job on the line at the Ford Motor Company.

 

And essentially, you were always making a living with your hands.

 

Oh, yeah; yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

 

And what did you aspire to? Were you happy with that? Were you …

 

I was thoroughly occupied with that. It was wonderful. I was getting to see the world, or at least a part of it. And I remember a moment when I was still an apprentice toolmaker, and we’d clock in, you know. And the clock was at this counter outside where you could see up. And I was coming in for a night shift, and I looked up and I saw the moon. You know, regular old moon. But I had this moment when it occurred to me that this moon could be seen just like this by people who weren’t in Dagenham, but were all over the world. And they must have thoughts just like that. And I knew I wanted to meet some of them. I couldn’t meet all of them, but I’d like to meet some of them. And that we had this experience in common. And that moment has just always haunted me. I think that might have been a propellant. But I’ve always had this real need. It is a need to travel, and see different things. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to gratify it in all sorts of ways, some more comfortable than others.

 

Well, when you approach a new city, or a new region, how do you decide you’re going to see it? There are so many vantage points.

 

Well, in those days, it was simply a matter of how am in gonna manage breakfast, and how am I gonna make the money to, you know, buy the next tank of gas. Or after a while, actually, I sold the van, and so, it was, you know, little more survival oriented even than that. So, it was how do I get by, especially when you don’t speak the language anywhere.

 

Were you all on your own?

 

M-hm; for most of the time. I mean, I had the occasional traveling companion. But no, pretty much on my own.

 

So, you were just living day-to-day.

 

Absolutely; yeah, moment-to-moment, really.

 

That’s a great formative—

 

It was the best time of my life.

 

Was it? Even though you must have been anxious, too.

 

I was anxious, I was uncomfortable, I was wet. A lot of the time it was too hot, a lot of the time I had rocks in my shoes. I mean, it was horrible by any rational measure, but it was a joyful, wonderful time.

 

Because everything was new?

 

Yes; yes. And there was no safety net, but at the same time, there were no barriers.

 

Did you ever fall into a hole that you thought you couldn’t get out of?

 

Oh, yes. It happened in Morocco, and it went on for about three months. And I really didn’t think I was gonna get out of that one, but ultimately did. It had to do with a camel saddle that I had, I thought, quite skillfully repackaged. Took the stuffing—you know what a camel saddle is; yeah?

 

What is it?

 

What is it? Well, [CHUCKLE] I’m not sure I’ll ever go near a camel. But it’s shaped like a saddle on the camel, and it has a cushion on the top, and it’s used as a piece of furniture. And tourists like to take them home and call them camel saddles. So, I replaced the stuffing in the top of this camel saddle with a quantity of very pure white hashish. You’ve heard of hashish?

 

Yes, yes.

 

Yeah. And attempted to mail it back to myself in London, and enlisted the help of a young man to do this. And he agreed, ‘cause you know, you can get anybody to do anything in Morocco. And he took it into a post office with this. And I thought that would be the sensible thing for me to do. And he did, and he disappeared. Oh, he didn’t disappear, he just didn’t come back for a long time. And I got curious and a little antsy after a while, and I poked my head in the door and this was another moment that I shan’t forget, the tableaux, this young is standing up against a counter. And as I poked my head in, I see him and the camel saddle, which has been ripped apart. And there’s two or three officials behind the counter there, and the child is in the process of turning around, you know. [INDISTINCT]. And you know, That’s the man. And that was that, really. I was the center of attention for a little while. And three months later, I find myself hitchhiking away from Tangier.

 

It sounds like you were lucky to get off with three months.

 

Oh, yes. I had one visitor, the young man that I’d been rooming with. And he sold my van and he got for me a lawyer, or at least some sort of representation. And I’m sure a portion of the money went to the legal representation, and another portion went to whatever happens to money that flies around in Tangier at that time. And to my immense surprise, I was in a room with uh, with a number of other people. Suddenly, I had a visit from the attorney type, and I had no confidence in this at all, but a week or two later, I was summoned into a court, with no preparation, no fanfare at all. The proceedings went on that I didn’t understand a word of, and within half an hour so, I found myself back on the street. And that was that.

 

You could have been left there a long time, and …

 

It was the one point at which I’ve ever considered suicide as a rational alternative. And in that sense, it’s been extremely useful. Because, you know, life has had its bumps, as life does, but it’s a wonderful thing to know, or at least believe that you know what your limits are, how bad things really have to get.

 

You could have ended up locked up and wasted away.

 

I could have. Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

Instead of in management.

 

Michael Titterton next went to Greece, where he met a young American woman who traveled with him to Israel, where they both worked in a kibbutz. She returned to the United States to attend college, and he later followed.

 

So, love brought you to America.

 

Yeah; yeah, pretty much. Well, I knew I wanted to come to America anyway, ‘cause I just hadn’t been there yet. But yeah, it was very romantic. And this young lady hitchhiked out from Oregon and met me in New York, and we spent a little while there, and I bought a car from a junkyard in New Jersey for, I think, ninety dollars; 1962 Tempest.

 

But you could fix it.

 

Yes, I could. Yes; I’m a very capable fellow. And fixed this thing up, and we drove it back to Ann Arbor, which was where her family was. I worked at odd jobs in Ann Arbor for a little while, and then got convinced that I really needed to investigate higher education. So, that’s what I did. And it was a little dodgy, because I hadn’t finished high school in any technical sense, but found that I could go to school in Canada, which wasn’t far away.

 

I notice you got your master’s degree in public speaking and rhetoric.

 

Rhetoric; yes.

 

Why did you choose that?

 

Bear in mind, this is the very, very early 70s. It’s 1971, actually, and coming into ’72. And I knew the US was … I mean, this was … social mobility was here, and that’s what I was really after. I didn’t know it at that time, ‘cause I didn’t know the words. But social mobility, and meritocracy. You know, if you work hard, you can get places. And it’s really what everybody dreams about, when they dream about America when they’re not from here. If I was going to understand this place, the quickest way to do it might be to study the media, because that seemed to be the bottleneck through which everything passed. And it was a very busy bottleneck at that point. Watergate, for example, Vietnam War, all the unrest on college campuses. Glorious time. And all of it was being fed through a media, which was under suspicion, as much of it is now. And so, I specialized in that. Wayne State had a particularly strong rhetoric department, and that was where I found myself, with a lot of wonderfully eccentric people.

 

And you’d already had experienced storytelling, because you had stories to tell along the way.

 

Well, everybody does. Yeah. But I did. Just because of the basic courses that I had to then take as part of being in the rhetoric program, I began to learn something about the mechanics of storytelling, if you like, the idea of a narrative. And I was very quickly drafted into teaching public speaking. So yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it, actually, as being part of the whole storytelling business, but I seem to keep coming back to that. But that’s what it is. That’s what life is, it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

And sometimes, you do things without having a name for it; right? And then, you find out—

 

Oh, yes; most of the time, actually.

 

Your real self keeps popping up in the form of what you do.

 

[CHUCKLE] Yes; that is true. That is true. But storytelling, I guess that’s a lot of the attraction that I have, or that radio has for me, because it’s a storytelling medium, and storytelling is … there are few human behaviors that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized.

 

And radio has that intimate quality.

 

Mm. It’s a one-to-one medium, and it’s frighteningly intimate. And the best of radio is indistinguishable from pillow talk. It’s that intimate. And that’s what I love about it. I mean, what’s not to love?

 

Michael Titterton started his career in radio by volunteering at his campus radio station, which he helped to become one of the first national public radio stations. From this valuable experience, he went on to spend the next twenty years building, managing, and consulting for public radio stations across the United States. He was thinking of moving on to a new career, when an unexpected opportunity arose.

 

Hawaii advertised this job at Public Radio for someone to take a very troubled station and make something of it, and you said, That’s for me. [CHUCKLE]

 

Oh; yes. And actually, it was funny the way it came about. Because I’d been consulting for a couple years, going around fixing broken stations. And that was great fun. But I’d reached a point where I thought, this Public Radio thing has been wonderful. And it really has. I mean, I’ve never regretted a moment I’ve spent with it. But I’ve done everything I really want to do. You know, I’ve been an operations manager, I’ve been a reporter, I’ve been a producer, I’ve been, you know, pretty much every position, and I’ve been building stations and running them. Time for me to go back to Europe now and reinvent myself again, and see what happens next. And I was in the process of doing that. I had my house on the market. I was winding up all my little business things. I hadn’t known about the situation in Hawaii, and I had three phone calls in the space of a few days from different people that I knew. And essentially, the message was, If you like broken stations, have I got a broken station for you. Anyway, I wrote to the folks here. In all honesty, I thought, you know, this will be one more fix-it job, and then—you know. But I came out and met with the board, and they were all very interesting people. They were clearly all agents of change. That’s why they were doing what they were doing and were so committed to it. There was a real will, there was a real spirit about the organization, [INDISTINCT]. It just felt right. And we reached an agreement, and I came out and went with them.

 

There was a real will, there was a real spirit about the organization, [INDISTINCT]. It just felt right. And we reached an agreement, and I came out and went with them. Uh, as I say, Honolulu was a big surprise. I—uh, you know, you have this idea of a tropical paradise, and Honolulu is anything but. You know, it’s a—it’s an intense, very densely populated city with a lot of uh, um … issues of its own. Uh, it’s uh, multiethnic beyond imagination. It’s uh, like all those planets that shows up in Star Wars Trilogy, you know. Um, everybody’s from somewhere else. And HPR was that way. I—when I met uh, the crew, everyone was from somewhere else. It was like taking over the Enterprise. You know, there were people from different planets. Um … and, yeah, grateful, jump in, and uh …

 

How did you get it to rise, when it was definitely in the hole in the ground?

 

[CHUCKLE] I think probably the … the lever that had the most benefit to it was the one of taking on the challenge of convincing a community that had begun to really give up on this. You know, this is a good idea, but it’s just not gonna happen. And convince them that it was a success. That it was a success. Not that it could be a success, but that it was a success. And in that first year, we did three fundraisers, and we’ve been doing two a year ever since.

 

And were you on the desk for HPR? You were handling the pledge interviews and appeals?

 

Oh, sure. Oh, yeah.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah, yeah; yeah. I’ve always enjoyed pledge drives. I get a lot of credit for being a fundraiser. I’m really not, but I love this business, and the pledge drives are a means to an end. You’ve got to have the money. The money is a means to an end. It’s not about the money itself. And I believe in the thing sufficiently, that getting on air and begging and pleading doesn’t bother me that much, because I believe in what we’re raising it for. And it was successful, and it seemed to turn around the consciousness somehow. And if people believe you are a success, then they’re gonna get behind you.

 

And there was always another problem after the one you solved; right? Because you were facing a situation that was layered, upon layered, upon layered with, you know, obstacles, which is exactly what brought you here.

 

Well, [CHUCKLE] yeah. I mean, I just thought it was gonna be, you know, another quick gig in this exotic circumstance. But then, you know, the idea got hatched of, Well, we seemed to have stabilized this, now there are a number of things technically wrong with the thing. You know, the old KIPO transmitter, and the fact that we weren’t heard in a great part of Oahu, much less the rest of the State. And we built the station in Hilo just because we happened to have a license that was about to expire. We were very motivated to build that station, which we did. And that got us to the point where, Well, you know—

 

Let’s go statewide.

 

Let’s go statewide; we’re Hawaii Public Radio, after all, and let’s try and make it so. And that was the narrative for the next two years.

 

Do you reach farther than for-profit radio stations with your broadcast signal?

 

Oh, absolutely; yeah. Yeah, we’re the only radio station with statewide reach. Yeah; absolutely. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here in Hawaii with the industry that I love so much. I like to think that Hawaii is an even better place now, than it was before we developed our Public Radio the way it is. It’s grown up now, it can stand on its own however many feet it has.

 

Hawaii Public Radio has received national recognition as a nonprofit organization for its achievements in news programming, fundraising, and fiscal responsibility. Michael Titterton, now HPR’s former president and general manager, was awarded the 2016 Alfred Preiss Honor by the Hawaii Arts Alliance for his lifetime support of the arts and community building. Mahalo to Michael Titterton of Makiki, Honolulu, for putting his skills and service to work for our community, and for delightfully sharing some of his many stories with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Looking back at how much physical ground you’ve traveled, and then of course, how much emotional and social ground you’ve traveled, you’ve had a chance to reflect a little bit on your life, and how you were gonna be a tool die guy.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, with a business, and all of a sudden, you’re getting a master’s degree and getting into public media, and being a turnaround expert.

 

Well, yeah. I never expected any of it. In terms of reflection, I’m still coming to terms with all of that. I feel enormously grateful. I mean, I don’t want to be too sloppy about it, but not everybody has the breaks that I’ve had. And I’ve been fortunate. I used to think it was a rotten break, but I was fortunate enough not to be born wealthy. Life is good; life is good. It’s been a fascinating journey, and it doesn’t seem to be quite done yet.

 

[END]

 


LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Henry Akina

 

With only a piano, a conductor and some lights, Henry Akina founded an opera company in Berlin in 1981. Under Henry’s direction, the fledgling Berlin Chamber Opera grew into a successful venture. Now, as Artistic Director of Hawaiʻi Opera Theatre, Henry Akina has presented Hawaii with The Mikado, Madame Butterfly and other visually stunning productions. Whether it’s with a small company in Berlin, or on a grand stage in Hawaii, Akina’s respect for the art of opera remains the same.

 

This month, Hawaii Arts Alliance is recognizing Henry Akina with its Alfred Preis Honor, for his commitment to arts and arts education in Hawaii. PBS Hawaii congratulates him on this honor.

 

Henry Akina Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Did your parents expect you, hope that you would go into medicine?

 

No; my father actually thought of law as a career. And my mother said, No, he will do what he wants to do. And so, I chose opera. [LAUGHS]

 

And how did that go over?

 

Well, that didn’t go over all that well.

 

Did you know that opera has been performed in Hawaii for more than a hundred sixty years? The royal family of the Kingdom of Hawaii first attended opera in Honolulu during the 1850s, and Queen Emma herself performed in an opera. In more recent times, Hawaii Opera Theater has been producing visually stunning operas under the guidance of its first ever Hawaii-born artistic director. Henry Akina, artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theater, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. He’s quick to laugh, but often, his demeanor is reserved. Don’t let the guarded personality of Henry Akina fool you. Behind it lies a passion for one of the most emotional and visceral artforms, the opera. Henry Akina has directed opera in prestigious opera houses in Germany, Hungary, France, China. Thailand, Canada, and the United State. Today, Henry Akina is the artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theater. Under his direction, Hawaii Opera Theater, or HOT, has staged acclaimed productions like Madam Butterfly, Tosca, The Tales of Hoffmann, and The Mikado. While attending Punahou School in Honolulu, Henry was drawn to the performing arts, taking a very different direction than his mother and father, with their careers in medicine.

 

So, you’re the only child of two medical doctors?

 

That’s correct; that’s correct. My father was Dr. Henry Akina, and my mother was Dr. Eleanor Akina. And my mom is still alive, so that’s … is it ninety-three? And she’s wonderful. My father was an ophthalmologist before, and a well-known politician. And my mom was an internist, and then a child psychiatrist.

 

What were your parents like in raising you?

 

Well, I remember my mother being very strict, and my father being sort of not there. He was older; he would have been a hundred a few years ago. But I’m sixty now, so that … probably colors it a little bit. [LAUGHS]

 

But your mom was the one who primarily raised you?

 

Right; right, right. Well, Mom really did, I think, a decent job.

 

What were you interested in as a kid?

 

Theater, and the garbage man. [LAUGHS]

 

Because you watched him out the window in the morning?

 

Right; right, right, right, right, right, right. Well, like most Hawaiian kids, I watched the garbage men pick these things up, and I thought they were great, and brawny, and wonderful. And I liked them, but I had nothing to do with them in my later life.

 

[LAUGHS]

 

So [LAUGHS] …

 

So, the other interest was music?

 

Theater and music; I played three instruments, growing up.

 

What were the instruments?

 

Piano, flute, and um, violin as well.

 

And what part of theater were you attracted to?

 

Spectacle, I think, mostly.

 

I know you were a student at Punahou for your entire—

 

Fourteen years; yeah.

 

And did you do theater there, too?

 

Yes; I was president of the Punahou Playmakers for a couple of years. I don’t remember how many, but [LAUGHS] …

 

And acted in plays.

 

And I acted in plays from a very young age, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I really hadn’t thought about opera until quite a bit later.

 

And when you thought about opera, were you thinking about you singing, or were you thinking about directing opera?

 

I’ve been directing for about thirty years, and I don’t think I’ve ever been paid to sing. [LAUGHS] So, there you go.

 

That’s not how you came up to through the ranks.

 

No, no, no; that’s not. I didn’t start as a singer like Quinn Kelsey, or like any of the others.

 

After graduating from Punahou School, Henry Akina attended Tufts University in Massachusetts, and then moved to Germany to attend the Freie University of Berlin graduate program. At the time, Akina did not realize he would live in Germany for the next twenty years.

 

At that time, Berlin was like a political island, and I had been raised on an island, so I knew what an island was like. And I wasn’t as bothered by the wall as other people seemed to be.

 

The Berlin Wall.

 

The Berlin Wall.

 

Which was up then.

 

Which was up then, and which colored my life a lot. It took two hours to get to the other side of Berlin. And I had taken Berlin because there were three opera companies there. The only other city at that time that had three opera companies was London. And I thought, Well, you already speak English, you know.

 

So, you wanted to go to a country where you didn’t speak the language?

 

That’s true; that’s true; that’s true. I thought it would be good for me. So, I did it. [LAUGHS]

 

And what was it like learning German on the spot?

 

Well, I don’t think I spoke. I had read everything by the time I got there. I had read, you know, Goethe. But nobody speaks that way. [LAUGHS] And so, we had to learn how to speak like a normal person. And so, we did. [LAUGHS] You know. As normal as we can be.

 

And you just learned it; you didn’t take a course. You learned by …

 

Well, I had German in school; I was in advanced placement at Punahou, and took that with me. And I had a couple of years of college German as well. And then, went into it. So, I didn’t go in exactly cold.

 

No; you had an immersion experience, with some background.

 

With some background. Yes; there you go.

 

And did you feel at home right away?

 

No; it took a while. It took about three or four years to feel at home. But then I felt at home, and then it was kind of a little bit … strange coming back

 

Tell me about life in Berlin.

 

Life in Berlin was interesting. It was very liberal, as life in Hawaii is, too. I didn’t have a car in Germany. I used the subway system and the bus system.

 

Well, that’ll introduce you to people quickly.

 

Oh, yes. [LAUGHS] I knew a lot more people in Berlin, than I do here. And I think that’s interesting, too. Here, I know the people I work with, and the people who I’ve seen. You know, I walk a dog every day for three miles, and those people I see. But I don’t really see very many other people, except for Ann and the people I work with.

 

And were you accepted in Berlin? You said open society.

 

I was accepted; I was accepted very readily.

 

And you had a job going in?

 

I was a student, going in, and then I had a job. And then, it was … it was interesting, because my career developed there, and I was a directing assistant, which meant that I got coffee, and I did all these other things. But at that time, I was an assistant for language particularly, because they needed someone who spoke English, and I did. And I was able to parlay that into a career.

 

At what point did you say, This is it, I’m not going back home, I’m not going back to the East Coast, this is home now?

 

Well, it took a while. And I think I was back in Berlin, and I was going to come here to work, to the Santa Fe Opera in ’79. I was going to do an office job in ’80. And I didn’t do the office job; I stayed in Berlin and grounded a company, which, you know, went for many years. And it wasn’t until I’d done that, that I felt that it was home. And that was after I’d been there for about four or five years.

 

Although Henry Akina was fascinated with theater from a young age, it wasn’t until he was living in Berlin that he discovered opera, this newfound discovery, which shaped the course of his career and life.

 

So, it sounds like when you talk about your past, you know, what went before, your childhood, your growing up, it’s not as important to you. It’s almost as if your life began when you discovered opera.

 

That’s true; that’s true; that’s true. And it’s been my life ever since. I worked with some of the best opera directors I could find at that time. But I don’t know if those names mean anything nowadays or not. Uh, Kurt Horres, Gotz Friedrich, and Harry Kupfer, who just did Der Rosenkavalier at Salzburg.

 

And he was an enormous influence in your life.

 

Yes, he was; he was.

 

How so?

 

Well, he was a director’s director. You could really learn from him; he had a technique, and people didn’t. Frau Berghaus was wonderful. You know, she had wonderful things, and she had wonderful images. But you couldn’t learn from her. But he had a technique that you could learn from, a method that you could learn from. And there was something interesting about it. An actor doesn’t have the information that a singer does, for instance. One doesn’t know this, necessarily. But singers actually have more information than actors do about a character, for instance.

 

Why? Because they’re …

 

Well, because the composer has written everything out, and there’s a lot of … a musical score needs to be done by an actor, whereas the singer has a musical score already in front of them. And so, the musical score needs to be put together by the actor, who will say that something is quicker, and something is slower.

 

Does that mean the actor has more choice than the singer?

 

The actor might need more therapy than the singer. [LAUGHS] I discovered that therapy was not my long suit, if you will.

 

[LAUGHS] You know, I think you’ve described opera as singing your guts out. I mean, it is a raw, and it’s emotions expressed in music. It’s a physically demanding job, being an operatic singer.

 

It is very physically demanding.

 

And you’re directing these people. I mean, tell us something about what that’s like.

 

Well, directing an opera singer is like directing a gladiator, and someone who’s right in your face, and sweating, and doing all these things for you. And you have to think about what you’re asking them to do, obviously, because you’re not asking them to eviscerate themselves, or do things like that. We don’t want that. We want to create a full performance. And I’ve usually had very collaborative relationships with singers to try and get that out of them.

 

And how do you get it out of them? I mean, you have to be empathic, you have to kind of know what they’re going through, and give them a vision, give them some kind of—

 

Well, I think vision and something to hold onto is important.

 

Something to hold onto, meaning …

 

Meaning, there are guideposts in every score, I think, and there’s you know, a moment in each measure that makes the singer respond in a way that—

 

So, you say, emphasize this, pause here?

 

Well, that is given by the composer. So the pause, you might take, say, in the case of a flauta, you might say, Well, here, you can be free, or here, you can’t be free. Here, you need to move it ahead, or you need to stay with what’s written.

 

So, if the composer has essentially directed the singer, then tell me how it is you add a dimension to that performance.

 

Well, the composer has written notes on page, and you’re there to make things live, to make things live for the singer.

 

Henry Akina admits that he can be impulsive. In 1981, he stepped out on his own, and founded his own opera company, The Berlin Chamber Opera, with conductor Brynmor Llewelyn Jones. Then, in 1996, after twenty years in Germany, a whirlwind offer led Akina back to Honolulu.

 

You actually cofounded an opera company in Berlin?

 

I did; I did.

 

Tell us.

 

I did; I did; I did. There was an English conductor and a class of singers that was leaving a conservatory and wanted to do something. And I thought, Well, this is a good thing to do. So, I did. [LAUGHS]

 

You didn’t think of all the reasons you couldn’t. You said, Oh, good idea, I’m gonna do that?

 

Well, yeah; yeah, yeah.

 

What did it require? It sounds like it would have required something on all fronts, including real estate.

 

Well, it did, and we were lucky that that was a company of young people that gave us a rehearsal hall. That was very nice of them. And it started out as a very sort of mom & pop of kind of thing. We had a piano, and this sort of thing. And then, it morphed. We became a candidate for state funding very quickly, very early on. And once the state funding started to flow, then there were more things. There was a conductor, and there were lights, and there were things that you couldn’t have imagined before, and we weren’t as dependent on rentals, and things like that. So … that was one of the wonderful ways that it actually happened.

 

And it functioned, and was successful?

 

Well, it functioned and was successful. I had very good press to begin with, and very good press with the conductor. And that that helped a lot.

 

And why did you decide to come back to Hawaii, after this successful time in Germany?

 

I was recruited. And state funding had gone down. This was something that Simon and I talked a lot with Donna Blanchard about, was state funding had done a downturn. And I thought, Well, you know, maybe if Hawaii wants me, that might be a good thing to do. So, they did want me, and they wanted me in two months’ time, which I remember being very challenging.

 

You mentioned that when you lived for twenty years in Germany, you’d have to go around the Berlin Wall. And then, the Berlin Wall fell. What were some of your feelings about that?

 

Well, it was ambivalent, because with the Berlin Wall, also this adventure left Berlin. So, I was essentially very poor at that time. So, that when HOT called, it seemed like, you know, Heaven had said, you know, Come home. [LAUGHS] Well, here we are. You know, and we had great luck, because that year was the first year that Quinn Kelsey was in the opera, opera studio, and Quinn is the new Hawaiian singer. And although there has been one in every generation, we were very happy it was Quinn.

 

Under Henry Akina’s direction, Hawaii Opera Theater, or HOT, has become known for vibrant, creative productions, sometimes incorporating modern updates and collaborations with top international artists. Akina directed a reimagined version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

 

I love that approach, in sense modernizing with Harajuku costumes.

 

You’re referring to The Mikado, then.

 

Yeah, Mikado.

 

Right; yeah.

 

And you feel free to do that. You don’t take the same opera and present it again. You add new touches. You’ve had Anne Namba’s designs, you’ve had Dean Shibuya change things up. 

 

We have a resident designer at HOT, Peter Dean Beck, who’s resident in New York, but who’s nonetheless been seminal for design here.

 

How do audiences feel about those changes?

 

I’m not sure. You know, people say nice things to me, so I’m assuming that they’re honest about those things. But I think that the audiences in Hawaii respond well to good stories, and we try and make good stories wherever we are, from wherever we are.

 

Do you look for ways to take a classic story and localize it or modernize it?

 

Well, modernize it, perhaps. Localize it, not so much. But modernize it, perhaps. And in the case of Mikado, for instance, we knew that we couldn’t go backwards; we had to go forwards. And we had to look at the Japan of today, which was a lot different than the first time we did Mikado, which was ten years ago.

 

So, in ten years, it changed.

 

In ten years, life has changed. Yeah.

 

So, how did your production change?

 

Well, the first production of Mikado was very traditional; it had a lot of traditional costumes. The second production of Mikado had nothing that was traditional at all. Except for the gentlemen of Japan, who were gentlemen. But as soon as the three little maids from school arrived, well, you knew that you were someplace else. [LAUGHS]

 

Pitti-Sing.

 

Right; right. 

 

Meaning, pretty thing as a name.

 

Right; right. Well, Pitti-Sing … she was interesting, because ten years ago, she was very Japanese, and today, or last June, she was very modern in a way made her different. that made her stand out particularly.

 

You’ve staged Mikado …

 

Twice. [LAUGHS]

 

And when you stage it again, let’s say you do it in ten years, would you imagine another jump?

 

Well, in ten years, Harajuku is already old, so we may find something else, you know.

 

Did audiences know Harajuku girls? Because that was the play.

 

I think that we tried to let the audience know that we were doing the style. But you’ll have to ask Anne about the Harajuku things, because it was based on one of Anne’s trips to Japan. But I think that in contemporary life, we would be someplace else in ten years.

 

Right. I think she reimagined those characters as hip shoppers out for retail therapy.

 

She did; she did. And using cell phones every five minutes. Right. And using an iPad; things like that. So, whatever we’re using in ten years will be reflected in the staging at that time.

 

In 2009, Henry Akina returned to the European opera scene. This time he received an invitation for a new production of Madam Butterfly at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland, as well as performances in Sweden. In 2014, Akina and HOT revived Madam Butterfly and shipped the set and costumes from Europe to Honolulu for Hawaii audiences.

 

[OPERATIC SINGING]

 

Ladies, this is much better; much improved. And so, I should see that again. Okay? And you should reanimate from frozen to [EXHALES]. It would be helpful on both sides, I think, so that each * is well designed and well imaged. You’re doing great.

 

[CHUCKLES]

 

Well, I would say that one of the signature operas that HOT has done a lot of is Madam Butterfly. And the latest version was with sets by Dean Shibuya and costumes by Anne Namba, which were very beautiful. And we did this five years ago, and this was developed here in Hawaii and taken then to Finland, and done in a theater in Sweden as well. So, that was a very beautiful production. Dean had been to a Butterfly I’d done here in ’92, and he did a template for the Bangkok Opera in … well, what year was that? 2004 or 5, or something like that. And then, Anne had done another Butterfly here at HOT. And so, we came together in 2009 to do that.

 

How did you connect with Anne?

 

Well, I went to her shop a lot, and she talked a lot with me about various things concerning Butterfly. And at that time, she was doing a lot of kimono work, so there was a lot of traditional kimonos in Butterfly.

 

And when you get together, you all know the story, you all know what it feels like. So, do you all envision it looking differently?

 

Well, for our particular Butterfly, we decided that the Asuka Period would be the period that you commence with, instead of being the Meiji Period, which is traditional with Butterfly, that we would take it a little bit more modern and do the Taisho Period. Which had more to say about the costumes than it did about the set, which was a traditional set.

 

So, the Hawaii costuming got its first showing in Finland, and then came back here on a slow boat.

 

That’s correct; that’s correct. That’s correct; that’s correct.

 

Some may perceive the average age of an opera audience in Hawaii to skew older; but according to Henry Akina, the local audience has been shifting over the last few seasons.

 

What’s the average age of somebody attending a performance of HOT?

 

I would say that we were a graying population, but lately, we’re a very young and vibrant crew. And it’s a very intergenerational kind of thing. So, you would say that the mean age was maybe thirty-five or something [LAUGHS] as opposed to fifty-five, which is what it was a long time ago.

 

Your parents introduced you to opera.

 

That’s correct; that’s correct.

 

And I assume that’s still happening, when you say intergenerational?

 

I would hope so; I would hope so. But I know that my generation doesn’t like opera as much as it could, and that there are very many people who haven’t experienced the opera yet. And there are people who’ve come with their children; because their children came, they come. So, that’s very interesting, too.

 

Opera has such fans. That’s where the word fanatic comes from; right?

 

Right; right.

 

I mean, fan. Why do you think opera exerts such a strong pull on those who enjoy it?

 

Well, I can only speak from experience, but I would say that because it’s that form of theater, and it’s that form of theater that uses everything that we have. We know that the plays in ancient Greece were essentially operas. And there’s something mythic about having things sung at you, and things developed in music.

 

Henry Akina was selected by the Hawaii Arts Alliance as the 2014 Preis Honoree in Arts, one of the highest honors for the arts in Hawaii.

 

You are winning. You’ve already been announced, I believe, as the 2014 Preis Honoree in Arts, which is a tremendous honor, probably the largest honor we have in Hawaii in arts.

 

Well, I knew Alfred Preis, and I think that that’s … I was saying that, you know, people who know me well don’t expect this honor. And I didn’t expect it, either. [LAUGHS]

 

Why? Why didn’t you expect it? I wasn’t surprised to hear that you were named.

 

Well, I was, in a weird way. And I went to a board member, Jean Rolles, who had been honored herself. And she said, You will do it for this organization. And since then, I have decided that I will do it for the organization.

 

But you didn’t think you deserved it? Is that what you’re saying?

 

Well, I’m not sure I did. I think that, you know, being the head of a collaborative artform, I feel that like a lot of people deserve this honor.

 

Like you’re only as good as the people who perform for and with you?

 

Exactly; exactly, exactly. Like I’m only as good as this Butterfly was, and I’m only as good as Anne and Dean can be.

 

As someone who had to live abroad for many years to learn about opera, a big part of Henry Akina’s life is sharing this artform with younger generations. According to Akina, the Hawaii Opera Theater’s educational programs reach more than twenty-five thousand students each year. In addition, he helped to found the Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio to train the next generation of operatic artists here in Hawaii. With Henry Akina’s passion, and with opera gaining popularity with younger audiences, it won’t be curtain call any time soon for Henry and his company of talented performers. Mahalo to Henry Akina for sharing his story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Would you ever be convinced to switch to a different kind of stage performance direction?

 

I have done that, and it hasn’t gone well. You know, so I would assume that I’m doomed to do opera. [LAUGHS]

 

In the best tradition of opera; right?

 

Right, right.

 

In the best emotional way.

 

[END]