Montreal composer Luna Pearl Woolf writes first opera, Better Gods

Better Gods tells the story of the dramatic abdication of the last queen of Hawaii, who was forced to renounce her lineage because of pressure from pineapple and sugar growers who wanted to solidify their connection to the United States.

Opera explores pivotal moment in American history in late 1890s

Luna Pearl Woolf says she visited Hawaii before writing a note of her new opera. (Courtesy: Luna Pearl Woolf)

Montreal composer Luna Pearl Woolf's first opera, Better Gods, opens Thursday night for two performances in front of sold-out audiences at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  

Commissioned by the Washington National Opera, Better Gods tells the story of a pivotal moment in American history in the late 1890s when the last queen of Hawaii, Lili'uokalani, was forced to abdicate because of pressure from pineapple and sugar growers who wanted to solidify their connection to the US.

In doing the research for the story, Luna Pearl Woolf says she discovered a fascinating character. 

"The last queen of Hawaii, Queen Lili'uokalani, was the last in a line of royal leaders stretching back to the beginning of time," she said.

"The lineage that she belonged to is in their creation chant, their Bible, their Book of Numbers.  But she was also the first generation of royalty that had been educated by Western missionaries. She had visited Queen Victoria. She had sat next to Queen Victoria at her Jubilee Celebrations."

But she was forced to abdicate in 1895 by businessmen interested in developing closer commercial ties to the mainland United States.

Before writing a note of the opera, Woolf took a trip to Hawaii,  travelling to the islands to meet with musicians and ethnologists who showed and explained some of the traditional instruments such as the Ka'eke'eke (bamboo pipe-drums), Pu'ili and 'Ulili (rattles), and nose flutes which are played by the 13-piece ensemble accompanying the opera.

"I met with hula masters, with a language expert," she said. 

"I also flew to Maui to go to a farm where they grow the gourds that make the instruments, and the farmers and I made nose flutes together which was the one melodic instrument they had pre-Western. So I really tried to kind of get a hands-on human influence into how I was thinking about the music."

One of her favourite discoveries was that the well-educated queen was also a composer.

"She wrote for the guitar for the piano and mostly for voices. There's actually a song that this queen wrote that everybody knows. It's called Aloha 'Oe." 

The song was famously performed by Elvis Presley, on his Blue Hawaii album.

About the Author

Jeanette Kelly

Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.

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