Mozart in Hawaii? No, not quite –.
Did you ever read a book that made you feel it had been written just for you? Of course, with any luck (and great publicity) it would also be read by millions of other people, but still, it had such resonance for you on so many levels – it was YOUR book! Except you didn’t write it.
Aloha, Mozart by Waimea Williams has been that book for me! There are so many similarities between the author and myself – and I knew most of them before I ever had the pleasure of speaking with her.
Although Ms. Williams is from Hawaii and I’m a native of Detroit, we share a lot of memories and history. We both knew at a young age that classical music—especially opera—would loom large in our lives. Then we digress a bit, for she went on to be a professional soprano on the international stage, while I eventually ended up as audience member and music reviewer. I dreamed – she did. And did she ever!
Waimea grew up in isolated rural Hawaii in the 50s with no TV and few movies, so everyone made music. “We all learned touristy Waikiki hula,” she says with a laugh. At 13 her family moved to the big city of Honolulu. “It was so different, with limits on what you could do.” Yet as a teenager she got her first singing jobs, then came to a turning point while attending a school production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. “ I came to see there was a whole other world out there.” Years later she appeared in various productions of that opera –preferring Pamina to the infamous Queen of the Night with that treacherous high F.
In college on the mainland Waimea’s voice developed toward opera. In the late 60s she boldly moved to New York, but found the city expensive and plagued by riots. Naively she had dreamed of getting a Met contract. Music study abroad was safer and cheaper, so with her savings she boarded a rusted freighter bound for Europe. In Salzburg, Austria, she faced immediate culture clash: Old World formality and dress codes were the norm for studying at the Mozarteum.
The dominant Catholic Church still followed the medieval Saint’s Day calendar, but hired orchestras and singers throughout the year. Waimea sang at weekly masses, and after the undecorated, stark Protestant churches of Hawaii, this kind of performing—as she says in her book— “Here she was in a lavish European court of the Lord.”
During winter months in the unheated cathedral, she stood in the balcony wearing a heavy coat, hat and gloves as the string players constantly retuned because of the cold. Soloists clustered together, stepped forward to sing, then quickly retreated to the warmth of the choristers behind them.
Salzburg also supported a provincial theater devoted to operetta, and countless Lieder and chamber music concerts. In the summer, the standard rose to the internationally-renowned Salzburg Festival. World-famous musicians and discriminating audiences flocked to hear Herbert von Karajan, a conductor with the status of a rock-star. He also controlled classical music in Berlin and Vienna, was a master of publicity, drove race cars, and flew his own jet. Waimea found chances to sing at the edge of all this, and was a soloist under Karl Böhm, the other leading conductor of that era.
For ten years Waimea sang in opera houses in Vienna, Salzburg, and Dűsseldorf before returning to New York. The Met still favored hiring only non-American singers. Without regrets, she performed a final recital. She never looked back, conceding it to be a ‘bittersweet memory’. Perhaps her favorite role was that of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
For several years in Manhattan and then San Francisco, she used an ability for “spatial logic” to diagnose computer problems. She headed teams of tech writers, but craved an artistic outlet, and quit the business world to take creative writing classes at UC/Berkeley. After receiving scholarships to writers’ conferences, she began to seek publication. It would be similar to auditioning for opera roles, she figured. What followed was a four-year correspondence with a New Yorker editor, who read 25 of her short stories, yet didn’t accept a single one. “It was a great learning experience,” she notes now. Then, she began a novel.
During the next twenty years (and four major revisions) she worked on Aloha, Mozart. In between, there were more short stories, and other novels, but always she came back to this one. She developed great affection for San Francisco, then as always planned, moved back to Hawaii.
Waimea Williams remains true to its heritage by working as a cultural practitioner, after long study performing Hawaiian chant in traditional settings . “It’s like a dramatic style of ancient rhetoric” she says, “often strange and fascinating to modern ears.”