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Translating the past

Music prof decodes historic Hawaiian opera

Researcher Dr. Kati Szego has recruited forensic experts to help decipher a historic opera chronicling the overthrow of Hawaii’s last queen.

By Jeff Green

At first glance it’s an odd match.

The meticulous archival work of an ethnomusicologist and the high-tech wizardry of forensic scientists seem to be worlds apart.

Until you look closer, that is.

Now, thanks to a common curiosity for the unknown, researchers from both sides of the continent have helped shed light on a little known chapter of North American history.

And leading that charge is Music professor Dr. Kati Szego. For the past four years she has been absorbed with learning more about the musical legacy of Hawaii’s last reigning monarch – Queen Lili‘uokalani, a once powerful figure who was overthrown more than century ago, leaving behind an indelible mark on her nation and its music history.

“She was an amazing woman,” Dr. Szego said with a wide smile on a recent quiet afternoon while sitting in her office in the School of Music.

Born in 1838, the queen was a gifted singer and pianist who also performed auto-harp, ‘ukulele and guitar. But it was her skilled compositions and poetry that have long captivated Dr. Szego, who joined Memorial in 1995, establishing the undergraduate program in ethnomusicology.

Currently on sabbatical and conducting further research on the former ruler, Dr. Szego has spent considerable time sifting through documents in archives in Hawaii and the eastern U.S. to try and gain a better understanding of the queen and an opera she wrote chronicling Hawaii’s loss of sovereignty.

“She was a prolific composer from an illustrious musical family that helped shape the course of Hawaiian music history,” Dr. Szego noted.

Queen Lili‘uokalani ascended the throne in 1891, but her reign was marred with turmoil. She was overthrown by American insurgents in 1893 and later arrested. Her monarchy crumbled and Hawaii was annexed to the U.S. in 1898.
During this saga, the queen turned pencil to paper, handwriting an opera libretto entitled Mohailani, recounting some events of the coup.

Despite its dramatic backdrop, Queen Lili‘uokalani’s libretto took an unexpected twist – she wrote her lyrics in the comic opera style of Gilbert and Sullivan, a famed British librettist/composer pair.

Fast forward nearly a century and amazingly that document is still largely intact, tucked away in the Hawaii State Archives. Although researchers have known about it for years, nobody has studied the libretto in detail until Dr. Szego.

“I certainly did not discover the opera; many people before me had seen it, but it had been lying dormant for at least a century,” she explained. “I wondered for some time whether or not I should work on it. With some wise counsel, I approached the Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust for their blessing.”
She also turned to some high-tech collaborators for help.

The historic opera was written using a soft pencil so the original document is smudged in many places. Some passages are illegible or barely readable to the naked eye.

That’s when Dr. Szego recruited forensic specialists from the Honolulu Police Department.

“I had read about some work in ‘lifting’ ink off of paper, and started scouting around to see what could be done with pencil,” Dr. Szego noted. “It was – and is – a painstaking process, but the thrill of making out just a single letter or word is hard to describe.”

That work is now continuing during her sabbatical. Thanks to lots of patience – and some funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – she’s making strides deciphering the historic text from another era.

“I’ve really been heartened by the goodwill that so many people have demonstrated toward this project,” she said. “Without the encouragement and assistance of so many archivists and forensic specialists, historians, friends, and Native Hawaiian advisors, there’s really no way our understanding of the libretto could have come this far.

“And while I have long admired Queen Lili‘uokalani, my respect for her has only deepened,” Dr. Szego added. “Here she was, probably in her late 50s, trying her hand at a completely new medium – comic opera in rhyming English. That took creative intelligence and guts, not to mention the courage it took to challenge such a powerful group of American men in the midst of such a personal and national tragedy.”