Two boys chant, “Bring in the noise, bring in the noise,” as a crowd of slippered teens files into the Kaua‘i High School music room at 6 p.m. on their last Tuesday night of practice for the school year. They’re preparing for next week’s spring concert, “The Family of the Opera” which will punctuate a year of devoted practice, community service, fundraising and travel.
Noise it may be, but only briefly.
From the corner of the room, their teacher sits at the keys of his piano. The volume of finishing conversations shifts from a scramble of unruly threads to something else. Kaua‘i High School Director of Choral Activities David Conrad begins to play scales.
The organic mob was assembled along the low bleachers opposite their teacher. From a cacophony comes something organized, focused and altogether unrecognizable just 30 seconds before. Two dozen voices honed into one finely tuned machine rise in unison, “Oh ya ya, oh ya ya, ohhhhhh …”
For the next two hours Conrad had them sing progressively higher scales, practice numbers to be performed and fine tune the soprano section with admonitions like: “Don’t oversing” or “Breathe with me.”
He calls them ladies and gentleman and waits between each piece performed for their silence.
“Okay, are you ready to do that next week?” he said.
He told one student conductor, “Never start till they’re quiet. You have to take command from the start — which is to command silence.”
Clearly there is freedom through discipline because this enthusiastic group vibrates with adolescent energy, yet shows complete regard for their teacher.
Just five years ago Conrad took his first group of students to Honolulu for the Hawai‘i Opera Theater’s “Opera for Everyone” program which falls on the final night of dress rehearsals for upcoming productions. The first opera Conrad’s students attended with an audience of hundreds of Hawai‘i elementary, middle and high school students was Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
According to Conrad, “Opera is the grandest of all the visual and performance arts,” and he was single-minded in his intent to give his music students an aesthetic experience unavailable on Kaua‘i. Convincing administrators, parents and students of the trip’s worthiness was the trick. Since that first opera though, he has had no difficulty finding support for the program.
“Students are invested now,” he said.
Having grown up in rural Kentucky, Conrad knows what it means to have limited access to the arts.
“I’m trying to do what I wish someone had done for me,” he said. “How might it have been different for me had I had the opportunity to experience live opera.”
Conrad lives by the adage, “It takes steel to sharpen steel.” To study voice is one thing, but to be in the presence of a trained operatic singer is something altogether different.
“Opera is the ultimate of vocal development,” he said.
When Conrad, plus parental chaperones and 32 students went to New York in March for the New York City Opera’s “student ovations program” they attended the city’s operatic production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Lincoln Center. From the fifth and sixth rows, this small Kaua‘i contingent could literally see the sweat forming on the brows of performers and the mist of expulsion bursting from their lips.
“Boy, did they hear grand opera,” Conrad said. “They were blown away at how big the voices are.”
One student asked Conrad where the microphones were.
“Microphones? They don’t need microphones,” he said. “Their voices are actually like horns.”
The student ovations program required two years of planning and community support. Besides multiple fundraising concerts to raise the money, over 50 percent of the trip’s cost was defrayed by donations. The entire trip for the students including flights, accommodations, shows and sightseeing for seven nights cost $131,000.
He confessed that there was a time when he’d have been intimidated by the magnitude of such a goal but learned that when it comes to dreaming big for Kaua‘i youth, he is far from alone.
“Key people in the community said that this is do-able,” he said.
The student ovations program is not the first mountain this veteran Kaua‘i High School teacher has climbed. In 1991 Conrad envisioned a piano lab for the school.
“I kept having kids come up to me and say, ‘Teach me how for play the piano,’” he quoted in mock pidgin.
In as little as four months, with donations only, $31,000 was raised.
“That taught me a lesson,” he said. “Your project is only as small as your dreams.”
When a postcard arrived in Conrad’s mailbox in 2006 describing the student ovations program he had the confidence to pursue it. The program promised on-stage experiences in the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center and hands-on training by the New York City Opera staff.
In fall 2006 his mission to raise funds for the New York trip began. First he trained students for a concert themed “Autumn in New York.” Then in spring 2007, Kaua‘i High School chorus presented “Avenue Q,” a show loosely based on “The Muppet Show.” The final push for raising funds was last fall when the chorus presented a concert that was predominantly Polynesian and Hawaiian, with only one song in English. Last December they performed a free holiday “Mahalos” concert for the community.
Next week, for the chorus’ final concert, Conrad designed a show that he called “very upbeat.”
“The Family of the Opera” is a buffet of pieces ranging from classic opera to “flat out show tunes.” The concert features music from “Carmen,” “Dreamgirls,” “La Traviata,” “Curtains,” “Madama Butterfly” and “The Lion King.”
Attendees can anticipate many poignant moments during the show: One piece commissioned for the student ovations program, “Keiki O Ka Aina” was written by John S. Alexander; there will be a guest performance by KPAC director Dennis McGraw as the baritone accompaniment on “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit” and student conductors will also take the stage to lead the chorus.
Every spring concert closes with two special presentations. Tuesday evening the Ruth Luka Goo Memorial Chorus Scholarship will be awarded, and on Wednesday is the traditional senior recognition for graduating chorus members.
The Ruth Luka Goo award is one Conrad created in memory of his good friend and colleague that goes to two seniors who show character, service, integrity and leadership.
“Ruth was a great support to me,” he said. “I created the award so people never forget her.”
Advance tickets are available from chorus students or at Kmart: $5 for seniors/students, $6 for adults.
• Pam Woolway, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or email@example.com
Want to hear Kaua’i’s teen talent
What: Kaua‘i High School spring choral concert
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Where: Kaua‘i War Memorial Convention Hall
Cost: $7 seniors/students and $8 for adults. Children under 11, free