The world premiere of New Zealand Opera’s production of Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator was rapturously received by a full house at the Vodafone Event Centre in Manukau, Auckland on March 19. Clare Martin went along to marvel at the talent and the tale being told.
This haunting new work is a compositional collaboration between Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) and Tahitian writer Célestine Hitiura Vaite, telling the story of Tupaia, the Tahitian star navigator who sailed with James Cook on the maiden voyage of the Endeavour in 1769. Co-commissioned by West Australian Opera, the evening was a concert performance with the Manukau Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Choral and The Graduate Choir NZ.
Welcoming the performance with much mana was a Tahitian maeva/welcome, prayers and speeches from Carmel Sepuloni MP. What subsequently burst forth on stage took the audience by storm, a wall of glorious orchestral sound from Manukau Symphony and choral forces providing commentary and colour for this important story. With conductor Uwe Grodd drawing together these elements with fluent ease and Tim Finn himself at the piano, the ocean voyage began.
Any scepticism that the world of rock could find credibility in opera was dispelled within minutes of the mini Overture. With a vast aural landscape, it was a hugely exciting and affecting ride. Musical materials were never reductive but rather a fresh and broad sonic scape was presented by Finn. Taonga pūoro (Māori flute) and orchestra blended in rich and genuine expression. (Much admiration for this must be given to the additional music and arrangement by Tom McLeod.)
Finn’s most successful expression took flight in the chorus’ sea shanties and the dramatic “…five foot of water in the hold!”. To have NZ rock royalty lead a song from the acoustic guitar was a welcome and warmly familiar note. The rhythm of Vaite’s Tahitian monologues as intoned by Aiolupotea Norah Stevenson-Tuuga added beauty, grace and authenticity.
With so much richness in Tahitian music to draw from, there was however opportunity for more indigenous sounds to have appeared in this piece. Despite one piercing line from Purea at the death of Tupaia, on the whole, we missed hearing haunting Tahitian waiata. Although Gamelan was referenced in the Batavian scene, the distinctive five-note scale could certainly have been used to greater effect.
The production was lent much quality by the sheer vocal virtuosity of the three singers. Paul Whelan’s imperious haughtiness gave glossy and grave tones to the character of Captain Cook. Natasha Wilson, as Purea, proved yet again to be one of Aotearoa’s most glorious sopranos with her glittering resonant tone. And as the main character, Amitai Pati playing Tupaia delivered effortless phrases with beauty and warmth throughout his vocal range, even popping out a high C in the first 10 minutes on stage. Bravo to these artists of Aotearoa, we have much talent here. Not to mention an astonishing performance from the acolyte Teata played by young H’zel Hetaraka. So much poise and gravitas in this debut.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of mounting this production is that many of the audience will have learnt of the astonishing and important figure previously left out of NZ history books – Tahitian Tupaia. This unsung Pacific figurehead was on board Cook’s Endeavour and negotiated first contact in Aotearoa on the shores of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay). Tupaia was an arioi or priest, a linguist, diplomat and an extraordinary navigator or Ihitai ‘Avei’a.
(And if you are curious to learn more about him, you would do well to seek out Lala Rolls’ film Tupaia Film.)
The piece chose to focus on the meeting of English and Tahitian cultures – as in the scene “This is the Map”. It symbolised the clash between the scientific logic of Cook and Tupaia’s extensive knowledge of Pacific waters and reefs. As the Endeavour limped into Dutch East Indies port of Batavia, we realised that this ship was not going to touch on Aotearoa shores. To bypass this incredibly important encounter seems to me to leave a hole in the hull of the story, perhaps a missed opportunity to use the emotional generosity of opera to tell a complex tale of the meeting of two peoples.
However, we were delightfully grateful at the arrival of this important piece. One hopes that it will over time be produced in other centres. And perhaps one day there will be Tupaia 2, when the all-important first contact in Aotearoa will be broached. Meantime, much thanks to the NZ Opera team, Manukau Symphony, the choirs, Tim Finn and Célestine Hitiura Vaite for bringing us this moving work.
Production images courtesy of Grant Triplow Photography & Video