Stage Right

Courtesy Hawaii Opera Theatre

Hawaii Opera Theatre’s School Residency program helps students express and rediscover themselves through performing arts.

Who would have thought that the story of Aida – an opera by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi – would make it to the (cafeteria) stage of Niu Valley Middle School? Or that the lyrics of “Come Friends Who Sail the Sea” from the “Pirates of Penzance” would be sung by Blanche Pope Elementary students? Erik Haines, Hawaii Opera Theatre’s Director of Education, isn’t surprised as he’s been putting on such high-profile named productions within Oahu’s schools since 1995.

“It’s funny because the kids are a lot easier to convince when it comes to doing an opera,” says Haines with a chuckle. “The adults are a bit more skeptical … They correlate the opera as giant people with horns. The kids, however, think of it as something we’re basically doing and they go out there to sing, act, and don’t even think twice about it.”

Inspired by Judith Ryder’s former education program at Cleveland Opera, Haines decided he’d take it a step further and replicate the program for an entire semester. Haines and members from the Hawaii Opera Theatre education team proposed that they would lead the students and teachers through the process of producing and performing a condensed one-hour opera. After collaborating with Hawai‘i’s Department of Education, Hawaii Opera Theatre took off their performer hats during their off seasons – traded them in for teacher hats – and quickly developed a curriculum for students who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to be part of an arts program.

 “Our residency program is great because it gives the kids a chance to succeed in something other than your usual classroom setting,” Haines says. “I’ve had many instances where we’d cast a kid in our play, and people would be surprised because that kid would be known to not excel in the classroom but they would shine on stage … we hope that it’s a stepping stone for these kids, to know that they can be successful in anything.”

Kathleen O’Malley, Aiea Elementary School’s principal, had seen a complete transformation in her students and even faculty members after the HOT spent their residency program at their school this past spring.

“She was grateful we had come to create this project with the kids,” Haines says proudly, as he reads a statement from O’Malley. “She said that ‘the project had not only (impacted) the students but also changed teachers’ beliefs in (their) children as well as their skill set … It was a joy to watch the personal and professional growth that occurred during (your) residency. The teaching artists have a magical way of making all things seem possible. We need more of that in our lives.’”   

A true testament, Haines says, to what HOT’s education programs strive to accomplish every year with their kids: the chance to experience expression through creativity.

“The kids learn so much in ways that they never would have before,” Haines says. “Whether they’ve been forced to improvise out of a problem on stage or create a prop for the play, the solution is not the same for everybody, which is one of the wonderful things about the arts, and the interpretation of the arts. The answer doesn’t have to be the same or even right … but it can be just as compelling and just as valid as the next person.”

For more information about the HOT’s education programs, go to

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