Law and opera: Ark. court clerk also a singer

When not on the job as the deputy court clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dawson, Mokihana Presley performs the operatic roles of strong women in control of their circumstances.

“It’s not the woman-in-distress. It’s rather the woman that has more control and power,” Presley said recently.

A native of Hawaii, the contralto’s operatic/choral career has taken her from Hawaii to Carnegie Hall in New York City and across the Atlantic for a special performance for the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. Her favorite role is Delilah in Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah.”

Working with Dawson, who is based in Fort Smith, but regularly holds court in Hot Springs, Presley is equally “in charge” on the job, making sure the federal court sessions run smoothly, the attorneys are ready for court, and the courtroom’s high-tech equipment is working.

While the opera stage and the federal courtroom may seem worlds apart, Presley said the two careers are actually quite similar; both require a good memory and plenty of professional responsibility.

“In the (operatic) roles that I did, there were a lot of people who depended on me,” Presley said.

In addition to the demands and responsibilities of both careers, Presley said the scripted human drama that occurs on the opera stage is also similar to legal “dramas” involving real people in tense situations in the federal courtroom.

Presley’s musical and legal careers have run parallel in her life.

“My family is all musical and I love opera. When I lived in Hawaii, I started working for a law firm when I was really young. I love law,” Presley said.

While living in the Aloha State, Presley sang in nightclubs and came close to starting her own musical show. It was at this time, while her day job was at a Hawaii law firm, that Presley met her former husband.

“I was singing in nightclubs. It was right when I was going to start my own show, and I would have been the first woman in Hawaii to have her own separate show,” Presley said.

But her former husband was being discharged from the military and was subsequently accepted at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Law School, so the couple moved from Hawaii to Northwest Arkansas.

By the time Presley and her husband relocated to Fayetteville, where she also applied for and received a scholarship to the U of A, she “had already traveled to Europe and met one of the Popes.”

While a student in Fayetteville, she entered and won a contest to sing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at a Walton Arts Center performance.

After Presley and her husband divorced, she eventually went to work at the law firm where Dawson was an attorney. Dawson was so impressed with Presley’s singing talent that he asked her to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at his investiture as a U.S. District Court judge. The strength of Presley’s voice immediately became apparent.

“I guess I sang loudly. I guess I sang in my ’opera’ voice because I do various other voices, blues, and so forth,” she said. “I blew out the sound system so that whoever was speaking (after she sang), the sound system didn’t work.”

Along with her daughter, she is attending Belmont College in Nashville, Tenn., and singing in Music City, but her musical performances are mostly limited to church. That, however, could change in the not-too-distant future, she said.

“I’m now getting back into starting to build up my repertoire for singing,” Presley said. “I sit in (singing) with others. I