THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Hizi Koyke: Dramatic soprano

bioline_Greg Robinson

One of the most celebrated and accomplished Nikkei in prewar America was Hizi Koyke, the diminutive soprano who served as the mainstay of the San Carlo Opera Company. Despite her fame, there is a remarkably small amount of verifiable information available on her life offstage.

Hisako Koyke was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1902, the daughter of a glass manufacturer. (She refused to be accurate about her age and would variously claim to be either six years younger or 20 years older.) By her own later testimony, Koyke was not active in singing in her youth. Rather, she attended an English-language school operated by Methodist missionaries and became most interested in social welfare work, especially with children. With support from her father, she moved to New York in the 1920s to study at Columbia University, with the idea of becoming a child psychologist.

Once in New York, Koyke sought voice lessons, allegedly to improve her speaking voice. She consulted local voice coach Edythe Magee, to whom she later attributed her development as an artist. Magee instructed her and in the process discovered her singing ability. Meanwhile, Koyke developed a passion for music, and became known as an assiduous attendee of the Metropolitan Opera. Magee encouraged Koyke’s parents to let her pursue a career as a soprano.

Thus it was that within a few years after her arrival in the United States, Koyke made her professional debut. Just when and where is not clear — according to one source, it was in Chicago in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado.” In any case, she soon took up the lead role of Ciao-Ciao-San in Puccini’s Japanese opera “Madama Butterfly,” which would become her signature role. Although one source states that she first sang the role in Cincinnati, what is certain is that principal connection with the role came via the San Carlo Opera Company. Founded and run by an Italian immigrant, Fortune Gallo, the San Carlo produced opera for the masses. Featuring cheaper prices and larger houses than other companies, short seasons and annual nationwide tours, it was the nation’s only opera company that regularly turned a profit. In 1927, Koyke was engaged to play Butterfly, thereby assuming the mantle of the famed Japanese soprano Miura Tamaki, who had sang the role with the San Carlo company two years previously.

In November 1927, Koyke made her New York debut as Butterfly with the company at the Gallo Theatre. It was a sufficiently auspicious debut that David Belasco, who had written the theatrical adaptation of “Butterfly” on which the opera was based, was invited to attend. Koyke’s first aria, sung from offstage, impressed The New York Times’ music critic, both by the silky timbre of the voice and the trueness of the pitch. Koyke also garnered praise for the authenticity of her performance. After the New York run, she immediately started tours with the company, performing in Boston, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans (where she was honored by the running of a Hizi Koyke horse race at Jefferson Park).

Koyke’s success as “Butterfly” led her to sing the role multiple times in the following years, appearing with the San Carlo Opera as well as the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, the Detroit Civic Opera, the St. Louis Grand Opera and the Chicago Civic Opera. At the same time, Koyke faced typecasting. “Nobody knew what else to do with me,” she later described it. She fought it as best she could. She performed in productions of other pieces, including Pietro Mascagni’s Japanese opera “Iris” (which she first sang at the Cincinnati Zoo’s summer opera in 1930).

She also did concert singing. In March 1927, she sang a recital at a private home in New York. In November 1929, Koyke gave a recital at the Barbizon in New York. Dressed in a golden kimono, she sang works by Handel, Charpentier, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Massenet, plus Japanese songs. She sang a similar recital at Columbia University in New York in October 1932, with selection from Brahms, Mascagni, Paisiello as well as Japanese songs. In 1940 she sang a recital at the Chase Barn Theater in New Hampshire, wearing native dress and mixing operatic arias with renditions of Japanese folksongs.

Koyke also performed in productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” In May 1931, she opened at Erlanger’s Theater on Broadway as Yum-Yum with Milton Aborn’s Civic Light Opera Company. Times critic Brooks Atkinson praised her for singing sweetly but ironically faulted her as too natural, “As the only Japanese in a cartoon of Japanese ceremony, Miss Koyke is charmingly exotic; but still the oriental accent is a blemish on the complete artifice of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.” After a Broadway run, the company went on tour, playing such venues as the National Theater in D.C. She repeated the role in tours in 1932 and 1933. In October 1931, she starred for the same company as “O Mimosa San” in a short-lived revival of the 1896 British musical comedy “The Geisha.”

One special aspect of Koyke’s performance in “The Mikado” is that she met Harold Hansen, who was one of her costars. While Koyke was initially hesitant about forming a union with a white American, the two were married in the early 1930s. The marriage seems not to have lasted, for within a few years she had married Edward “Mario” Gallo, son of the director of the San Carlo Opera Company.

While the San Carlo Company had faced difficulties in the early years of the Great Depression, it rebounded in 1932 with a new production of “Madama Butterfly” at New York’s New Amsterdam Theater, starring Koyke. A New York Times critic lauded her for “giving a performance usually supple, and often stirring. She knows how to move, and can convey emotion by something other than pointless gestures.” It was this production, and Koyke’s star power, that anchored San Carlo’s program during the 1930s. In 1934 Koyke sang “Butterfly” before an audience of some 6,000 at the Hippodrome in New York. Koyke developed a fascinating psychological approach to the character, and was praised for her acting — one bravura touch was her letting down her long hair before the final scene. In 1933, she appeared as herself in a Hollywood film short, “On the Air and Off,” and she made multiple appearances on national radio shows like “The Rudy Vallee Variety Hour.”

She also starred on the company’s annual tours, and made headlines in West Coast appearances — beginning in San Francisco in 1935. In 1937, she sang “Butterfly” before some 24,000 spectators at the Hollywood Bowl. The same year, she starred with the company in Leoni’s short opera “L’Oracolo” — a piece set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Koyke connected with West Coast Japanese American communities during these tours, and became known for seeking out Nisei singers and hiring them for small roles in local performances. In particular, she was impressed by California-born soprano Tomi Kanazawa, whom she referred to publicly as her protegée.

In the late 1930s, the San Carlo Company moved to the Center Theater in Rockefeller Center for its annual productions of “Butterfly.” (On one occasion in 1938, Koyke developed laryngitis and Philippine-born soprano Enya Gonzalez substituted for her). In January of 1941, the company debuted a new production of the opera in English — the timing of the move suggests that, in the face of the war clouds brewing between the United States and Japan, the company wished to underline its patriotism. When the production toured the nation’s capital, critic Richard L. Coe remarked of Koyke that she managed well in English, and added, “it is so justly celebrated a portrayal that it is redundant to comment on it much further.”

His colleague Ray Brown (who did not fear to comment!) lauded her for “investing the role with a Nipponese charm which no Occidental singer can quite attain by the most painstaking imitation It was in the minutiae of her of her acting, the grace of her movements and the naturalness of her demeanor that the winsome character became real … Apart from a vibrato in the entrance aria, she sang with a fine control of tone and her voice was an agreeable one to hear.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 devastated Koyke. “Madama Butterfly,” set in Japan, was now associated with the hated Japanese enemy, and performances were suspended during the length of the Pacific War. After her husband Mario Gallo joined the U.S. Army, Koyke remained in isolation, and ceased to sing or appear in public. Instead, she divided her time between her apartment in New York and a local Japanese Methodist Church. Koyke later lamented that her white friends were frightened to be seen with her, and even Nisei in New York avoided her. Sometime during this period, she petitioned for U.S. naturalization.

Following the end of the Pacific War, Koyke’s career revived. She made her return as Ciao-Ciao-San with the San Carlo Company at the Center Theater in May 1946, and went on to play the role at the Cincinnati summer opera. The following year, after another season at the Center Theater, she resumed her nationwide tours (in a performance in Chicago, the young Richard Tucker, a last-minute substitute, sang opposite her as Pinkerton). She resumed as well her tours of the West Coast, and sang in Seattle for the first time. In 1949 and 1950 Koyke traveled to Washington, D.C. and sang on a barge in the Potomac as part of the Watergate Festival. Critic Paul Hume gushed, “Koyke has a limitless fund of artful touches and natural graces, making her embodiment of the title role something to draw people by the thousands.”

By 1955, when Koyke retired from the stage, she had sung Ciao-Ciao-San several hundred times — up to 1,300 by one estimate. (Her final performances seems to have taken place at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Washington, D.C.). Following her retirement from singing, she became a director with the Chicago Lyric Opera, and staged productions of “Butterfly” there and in Dallas, directing such talents as Maria Callas and Dorothy Kirsten. In 1965, when her production of “Butterfly” was performed with soprano Maria di Gerlando, critic Charles Crowder praised Koyke for having the singularly fine taste to direct the opera for an over-all line of continuity rather than special effects.”

In later years, Koyke lived in New York, where she died in September 1991.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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