Ke Kali Nei Au and the Hawaiian Opera

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Having just entered into the sacred union of marriage I decided to commit some time into researching the history of one of the finest Hawaiian songs ever composed, the insurmountable “Ke Kali Nei Au” also known as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song”. It was hard to dig up too much information other than this very interesting aspect of this song’s history. Mainly that according to this very informative article published in Hana Hou! magazine it was originally written by Charles King for a Hawaiian operetta titled “The Prince of Hawai`i”. This article got me thinking about the opera in Hawai`i and based on the fine history of singers in Hawai`i if anyone from here has gone out to perform on the operatic stage.

Well as you can read if you go to the above link to the article is that yes, there is certainly a pretty big history of opera in Hawai`i and opera singers from Hawai `i. Digging further I came across this very informative paper published in the Hawai`i Journal of History. I strongly suggest you read both as they are full of information and historical antidotes. One tidbit I found really interesting was the discovery of Tandy MacKenzie who is considered the greatest opera singer to come out of Hawai`i. The story goes that as a member of a glee club in Massachusetts where he was studying pre-med, he was heard by famous Irish tenor John McCormack who made the suggestion to MacKenzie that he pursue singing as a professional vocation.

Another interesting anecdote found in the Hana Hou! article concerned Kamehameha IV working as a stage manager in Verdi’s Il Trovatore with Queen Emma singing in the chorus. Or the royal princesses Likelike and Pauahi Bishop singing in Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. All of these performances took place at the little Irwin Music Hall across from `Iolani palace whose picture is found at the beginning of this post. You can read more about this opera house’s history by clicking on this link.

All very fascinating and under documented historical incidences. But when you look at history and the context that Hawaiian music plays in the cultural context of the Hawaiian, a historical relationship with opera it makes sense. As famed musician and Director of the Royal Hawaiian Band Aaron Mahi says “In Hawaiian music, the most important aspect is the mele [text]. The mythology of Hawaii lends itself to storytelling, and the folklore is full of deep, dramatic settings. That’s very much a part of opera.”

But just to bring it all back to Hawaiian music, there are recordings of the fine opera singer Tandy MacKenzie singing traditional Hawaiian tunes. Listen to his rendition of “Mai Poina `Oe Ia`u” in particular.

And as for that little wedding song that started this whole investigation. Well I am particular to the version sung by The Makaha Sons and Nina Keali`iwahamana.

Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up much more than the fact that it was originally written for this unrecorded operetta in the 1920s. I guess all we can do then is just sit back and listen to this beautiful mele.


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