Last Saturday I attended the funeral for Neva Rego, where Star of the Sea Church was filled with Neva’s students, friends and family. David Free graciously agreed to share his eulogy with readers of my blog.
The song has not ended—the music plays on! The legacy of Neva Rego is alive. It lives on within each of you—it lives each time you utter a musical note. There, there in that melodic tone will be Neva’s magical, masterful, magnificent talent as a technician of the human voice.
We all knew her as “Neva’” but that moniker was an abbreviation for “Aggreneva,” a name her mother selected while carrying her only daughter in her womb. The family story is told that mother Rego heard a visiting opera singer to the islands perform and at that moment decided that would be her offspring’s given name. How appropriate—a name from a vocal musician—it had to have been Divine inspiration!
Neva began her professional musical career as a teen, performing at Waikikiʻs landmark hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village with renowned recording artist, Alfred Apaka. It was there she met movie actor Rossano Brazzi, lead man in the movie “South Pacific” who, sensing her enthusiasm for studying opera in Italy, paved the way for her to meet Mario Basiola, a famous principal baritone at La Scala, in Milano.
Neva had an insatiable appetite for opera starting as a child. She delighted in listening to opera music via live concerts, radio, LP recordings etc., always imagining herself as one day becoming and performing like those she heard.
Following her schooling at Sacred Hearts Academy and UH, Neva wanted more musical training, more instruction in the Bel Canto technic of singing. She felt that the only true way of receiving such training was to go to the very source of the method—that would mean traveling to Italy.
While a teen, Neva informed her father that she wanted to leave the islands to study in Italy because she loved the beautiful color of the Bel Canto technique. Perhaps not wanting to lose his daughter halfway around the world, her parent informed her that she already sounded like those beautiful Italian singers she so adored. But finally, after convincing her papa of her desire and importance of studying in Italy, she boarded an Italian freighter with a crew that barely spoke English, and arrived on the shores of Italy three months later
In the evenings aboard the freighter, Neva would gather with crew members on the fantail of the ship for instruction in the Italian language and when arriving at her destination, she was equipped with a usable version of the countries vocabulary, undoubtedly colored a bit with the sailor’s dialect.
Neva’s final destination was the city of Milano and there she began her studies of the bel canto method of singing, the method which would years later make her a vital entity in Honolulu.
After 25 years of learning the bel canto method of singing, after 25 years of learning the art of Italian cooking and after 25 years of amassing wonderful friendships, Neva was homeward bound… but before departing the country shaped like a boot, there was one last thing to accomplish and that was to convince one of those wonderful friendships, by the name of Betty Grierson, to join her in Hawaii to become a partner in a School of Bel Canto Singing… and the rest is history!
Neva was well prepared to become a teacher, she knew the technique well, she knew how to instruct others.
But that’s not what made her a great teacher, that’s what made her a competent teacher.
What made her great was that she truly cared about her students. She gave them her time and lots of it. She listened to them and let them know she cared about them. She took them seriously. She let them know how they were doing with regular feedback. And when they did something good, she praised them—and she meant it; nothing made Neva happier than seeing her students do well.
Neva taught her students to sing great music. Each lesson she challenged them to appreciate good music, good singing, no matter what the genre. She taught them that working towards excellence could be an act of worship. There was no “good enough for church” with Neva.
Neva was not just a music teacher. She also spoke identity, gave direction, and called out exceptional talent. She helped discover who we wanted to be, and what we could be. Neva did not try to make students into “little Neva’s.” She wanted her students to discover and then become, what God created them to be. She wanted them to be their best selves.
I’m painting a picture here of a saint—well she was a saint in many ways! It was just that her halo needed adjusting a little now and then. Sometimes Neva displayed a flagrant disregard for inconvenient traffic laws. Riding in the back of her car, many of you will remember the experience brought us all a little closer to Jesus. Also, now and then she could slip into the vocabulary of those sailors on the fantail of the ship, never apologizing for her colorful expletives.
Today there should be no sadness, there should be joy in our hearts that Aggreneva Rego touched our lives, whether it be as a student, as an opera board member or supporter, or as a friend.
The song has not ended, the music plays on and we are the testament to Neva’s legacy. If she did so much good on earth, just imagine what the music of heaven sounds like today.
Praise be to God! We pray that You hold her in Your loving grace.
Neva is survived by Jay Lowell Rego, brother; Betty Spann, sister-in-law; Betty Grierson, long-time friend and partner; Christopher (Candy), nephew; Arleen Cannon (James), niece. Neva was the recipient of many awards over her decades of teaching. In recent years she received two major laurels: The National Society of Arts and Letters Excellence in Education lifetime achievement award and a Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award.
Here is a video of Neva with local personality Leslie Wilcox, in her program called “Long Story Short.”