Meet The New HOT Executive Director

Born into a musical family, and having studied economics at Cambridge, Simon Crookall is tasked with expanding Hawaii’s opera audience

Simon Crookall, a spirited Brit complete with intelligent accent and wry wit, settles into his chair. As the new executive director of Hawaii Opera Theatre, he paints a tantalizing picture of what to expect at HOT’s Oct. 11-15 show, Turandot (rhymes with plot, not foe):


Image 1 of 3

‘Turandot’ clowns, as Crookall refers to them: Pang (John McVeigh), Ping (Jonathan Beyer) and Pong (Joseph Frank)

“Turandot is The Ice Princess in Beijing and she is heavily influenced by the fact that her ancestor was brutally raped by invading hordes – you’ll probably have to keep that out of the paper! Because her ancestor was abused, she vows that no man will ever gain her hand or anything else about her.”

In his relaxed telling, peppered with just a touch of cheekiness, Crookall goes on to describe how Turandot sets three riddles that young princes of the land may attempt to answer to woo the maiden of unsurpassed beauty. They announce their arrival with the bang of a gong. However, they all fail to answer the riddles, and they peremptorily get their heads chopped off. Then, young hero Calaf steps in and to Turandot’s horror, he solves the riddles and responds to her abject woe by setting a challenge of his own.

“You can’t help but think this guy is idiotic, because not only has he accepted this chance to have his head chopped off, but then he says, ‘OK, I will set you a challenge. If you can find out my name by the end of the night, I will willingly have my head chopped off.'”

The opera’s most celebrated aria Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep) finds Turandot’s countrymen roaming the streets on a desperate name-hunt. Long story short, a kiss from Calaf sets the princess in a tizzy, leading down the happily ever after road. But does Turandot discover his name? You’ll have to come see.

“It is an opera with a happy ending,” nods Crookall. “Puccini was not known for his happy endings, but he died during the writing of this opera (in 1924). His pupil Alfano finished it off later (relying on Puccini’s notes).”

Now, Crookall’s aim is to fill the seats so that old and young generations alike can maintain HOT as a thriving jewel in Hawaii’s arts scene. Born in England, Crookall was flipping music pages for his father, the church organist, since the age of 3 and eventually moved up to singing in the church choir. Since then, his life has centered around music. He earned a Cambridge University education before moving to Scotland for 20 years, where he worked in a college of music, then in a concert hall and then ran the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He joins HOT at the conclusion of an eight-year stint here in the U.S., serving as president and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

“I read economics at university, but I was spending a lot of time singing and doing music,” says Crookall, who also has been known to sing opera. “Music and business – I’m very lucky to have been able to combine the two in my work.”

He moved to Hawaii sight unseen this past June: “It’s a gorgeous place. Who wouldn’t want to live here and work here?”

And work he does … diligently. He says he’s trying to help HOT recover after the country’s economic downturn and the major season shift when HOT moved from producing three operas in a row to pacing them throughout the year. Given their dependence on individual philanthropists, art companies, particularly here in Hawaii, suffered from the economic hit. A further detriment to opera, says Crookall, is that classical art forms are becoming anachronistic.

“Audiences are of a more mature demographic and a higher wealth demographic. In order to ensure our longtime survival, we have to make sure the financial basis is as secure as possible, but we’ve also got to reach out to the next generation. Across the country, we’ve been struggling with that idea. How do you engage a younger demographic in an art form that they think is really for their grandparents?”

His goal is to “unlock the door” to the way young people view opera. He brought in young technicians to design a new website (, and in the process, these youths who had zero grasp on opera recognized tunes such as Nessun Dorma from pop culture, be it from movies, commercials or broadcast during the World Cup.

“The music is very accessible, and opera is huge and multifaceted,” says Crookall. “For the current generation, it provides all the things they get on the computer. It’s multimedia, naughty, experiential. You’ve got acting, singing, dancing, visual, sound – all at once.”

Each of the three nights of opera exudes a particular appeal. Friday, opening night, is full of glamour and excitement. It’s for those, says Crookall, who “want to see and be seen.” Sunday’s matinee attracts an older crowd, while Crookall is partnering with Yelp to draw in the trendy set Tuesday.

“If you want to hang out, you don’t want to hang out with your mom kind-of-thing,” laughs Crookall. “It’s a question of creating an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable. You don’t have to dress up in a tuxedo. You don’t have to sit in solid silence. You don’t have to be all grown up and posh to enjoy opera.”

Meanwhile, the stars in town are the crème de la crème, with soprano Susan Foster receiving critical for her portrayal of Turandot, and Grammy Award-winning tenor Jay Hunter Morris, the self-proclaimed “redneck opera zinger” from Texas, wooing her as Calaf. Karen Tiller, who stepped aside as executive director, leaving an opening for Crookall, is directing. The large cast of nearly 100 includes dancers and a children’s choir.

“In an operatic set,” says Crookall, “I play the supporting role so that we can raise money and build an audience, and enable our artistic director Henry Akina to realize his artistic vision for the company. We have plans for some adventurous things.”

“Turandot” plays at Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets start at $29 and can be purchased by calling 596-7858