It’s a dream gig for tenor singer James Price. A former Mauian now living in New York, Price has returned to the island he loves to star in the biggest theater production ever presented here.
He will perform the leading role of Jean Valjean, in Maui Academy of Performing Art’s production of the musical “Les Miserables” that opens on Friday for a six-show run at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.
“It’s great to be back in the most beautiful place on earth,” says Price. “It’s a dream role for anybody. Jean Valjean is one of those roles you can’t do too early. You have to have some life behind you to play the character, and you need to have vocal maturity.”
“Les Miserables” has thrilled audiences for nearly three decades. MAPA’s production will feature an 80-member cast accompanied by a 25-piece live orchestra, and it also marks the first time that the award-winning musical has been performed on Maui.
Singing opera and musical theatre in venues all around the world, Price has arrived on Maui right after performing in opera productions at a festival in Europe.
A versatile tenor, he is a regular guest at Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival, the Macao International Music Festival, and with Hawaii Opera Theatre. Price appeared with the Teatro Grattacielo at New York’s Lincoln Center, and in concerts in Hong Kong, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others.
Price’s varied operatic repertoire includes the roles of Basilio and Don Curzio in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Goro in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Roderigo in Verdi’s “Otello,” and Paris in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Living on Maui for six years, he spent another three on Oahu before he moved to Chicago to work on a vocal performance degree at DePaul University.
“I first came to Maui on vacation in 1993 because a good friend of mine and his brother had moved here after we graduated high school Wisconsin,” he explains. “Their mom is Nisei generation, born and raised in Lahaina, so they had strong family ties to Maui. They were both with the Maui Fire Department at the time, and 20-plus years later, still are. I quit my job and moved to Maui.”
It was later while living on Oahu that he became intrigued with opera and musical theater.
“I joined the University of Hawaii’s community chorus and they were doing ‘Carmina Burana,’ ” he continues. “Quinn Kelsey, who is now singing lead roles all over the world, was my neighbor, and he asked one day if I was going to watch his opera. He was singing Melot in ‘Tristan and Isolde.’ My first opera was Wagner, and I loved it. So I started taking voice lessons at the age of 31 in 2000, and by 2009, I was in the extra chorus of the Metropolitan Opera singing in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle.”
Over the years, Price returned to Hawaii for extended winters performing in operas and concerts mostly on Oahu. “Then I returned to live another three years on Oahu between 2007 and 2010, when I was asked by Hawaii Opera Theatre to serve as their Artistic Administrator,” he says. “I did that for three seasons until I had to move back to New York City, as I missed full-time singing.”
Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “Les Miseables,” was transformed into a musical in 1980, opening in Paris. It tells the story of French peasant Jean Valjean, and his quest for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child. Set during a revolutionary period in France, Valjean changes his identity and becomes the wealthy mayor of a small town.
The musical, “Really lends itself to operatic singing,” says Price. “It is a sung through production with maybe a line or two of spoken dialogue.”
The memorable Tony Award-winning score features iconic songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “One Day More,” and “Bring Him Home.”
So does he have a favorite “Les Mis” Valjean song?
“I go back and forth between ‘Who Am I’ and ‘Bring Him Home,’ ” he notes.
” ‘Bring Him Home’ is probably the most famous. I sang it in a concert last year with the Great American Voices at Hickam Air Force Base. Just at the end of the song, a jet flew by, and the people there really understood that prayer, that plea to bring them home unharmed. It was pretty moving.”
Looking to the future, Price hopes he can find a way to continue his artistic association with our island.
“I learned a lot about life while living on Maui,” he says. “There is an unexplainable draw to Hawaii for me, and to Maui in particular.
My eventual goal will be to use my connections to open an opera company on the island and bring high quality performances to the people of Maui. It’s a way of giving back to the community. To take away the negative elitist stigma associated with the art form by entertaining and educating people with opera would be pretty incredible. Here’s a community that grows up with singing, art, music, and dance, surrounded by other cultures and languages. Maui is the perfect place for opera to thrive. And a company on Maui is a great reason to return several times each year. I can do something that I love in a place that I love, with people that I love.”
* “Les Miserables” opens on Friday at Castle Theater in Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays at and 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 25. This Sunday, audience members are invited to stay for “AfterWords,” a talk-back session with members of the artistic team and the cast immediately following the matinee. “Les Miserables”costs $15 to $65 (plus facility fees). Tickets available through the MACC box office, by calling 242-7469, or online at www.mauiarts.org.
A packed Fleetwood’s on Front St. on Friday night saw the return of the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band celebrating the Lahaina restaurant’s first anniversary. Just back from touring with Fleetwood Mac, legendary drummer Mick Fleetwood was on fire, as was the rest of the quartet of Rick Vito, Lenny Castellanos and Mark Johnstone. They did blazing versions of “Black Magic Woman” and “World Turning,” with Mick unleashing a mighty drum solo.
Coming up, legendary musicians Graham Nash and David Crosby unite for a benefit concert on Aug. 29 at the MACC, with Jackson Browne sitting in. Proceeds from this show will be donated to “Ruth’s Ride.” Ruth Benavides is the 10-year-old daughter of Maui resident and former bus driver for Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Benavides. Funds are needed for a wheelchair accessible van.
On Aug. 30, the duo will headline a “Pesticide-Free and GMO-Free Kauai” benefit concert in Lihue. In October, they will join Stephen Stills for CS&N shows in Europe, including three nights at London’s venerable Royal Albert Hall.
Pat Simmons Jr. will open for his dad’s band, The Doobie Brothers, at the two-day 27th annual B.R. Cohn Charity Events Fall Music Festival, in Glenn Ellen, Calif., on Sept. 21 and 22. Also on the bill, Bad Company with Paul Rodgers, Heart and the Gin Blossoms. Pat Jr. will be among Maui musicians playing Manao Radio’s “Upcountry Sundays” at Casanova on Sept. 1.
Tickets are now available for the third annual Maui Jazz & Blues Festival set for Sept. 3 through 8. The festival will kick off on Sept. 3 with the Hawaii debut of the New Orleans band The Iguanas, and zydeco music with Dwayne Dopsie and The Jazz Alley TV Trio at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.
Other events are planned at Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon, then on Sept. 8, the festival will present a number of jazz and blues greats at Grand Wailea. Some musicians include veteran percussionist Lenny Castro, Grammy winning blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker, trombone virtuosos Delfeayo Marsalis, sax player Donald Harrison, Iguanas, Dwayne Dopsie, Paula Fuga, Brother Noland Blues, and Wave Train with Mark Johnstone.
* Tickets are $50 for general admission and $100 VIP for the Sept. 8 fest, with VIP table for 10 available for $1,000. For ticket information head to www.mauijazzandbluesfestival.com. Tickets are $25 for the Ritz-Carlton event. For further details, call 573-5530.