Auckland Arts Festival: The Bone Feeder - Review

by David Larsen / 24 March, 2017

Playwright Renee Liang converted The Bone Feeder into a libretto for the Auckland Arts Festival. Photo/ Stephen Langdon.

7/10

 

Music to drift to

There is a great deal to admire about Gareth Farr and Renee Liang's opera The Bone Feeder. It's smart, it's sophisticated, it's richly multicultural in a way we ought to be able to find normal (but sadly can't), and every aspect of the set design and execution is excellent. Great singing, great playing. You will note however that I am avoiding the phrase "I enjoyed it".

The show began life as a play, written by Liang ten years ago and expanded and refined through several productions up and down the country since then. It was at the 2011 TAPAC production that Auckland Arts Festival artistic director Carla van Zon saw it and decided it was an opera waiting to happen. You can understand why. The story is based on the 1902 sinking of the steamship SS Ventor off the Hokianga, en route to China carrying the bones of 499 Chinese. "New Zealand Chinese" was at that time not even the vexed and marginalised label it became for much of the following century; it was a non-concept, which is part of the reason the bones were on the Ventnor to begin with. Convinced that they would never belong here -- not least by the racist legislation which banned them from bringing their families to the country that was happy to use them as labourers -- Chinese immigrants saved up to have their bones exhumed after death and returned home.

The key detail in this story is explained in the opera's programme notes: the traditional Chinese belief that "if they did not return home, they would become hungry ghosts, unable to care for their families nor be cared for in turn". As the opera opens, Ben (Henry Choo), a young Chinese New Zealander, has come to the Hokianga in the present day, looking for the lost bones of his great great grandfather. He meets a Maori ferryman (Te Oti Rakena), who seems to know more than he's saying about the history of the area and the risks of annoying the local spirits. The spirits, whom we meet shortly afterwards, are in fact a lot less formidable than the impressively imposing ferryman: lonely, mischievous ghosts who have been trapped here ever since the Ventnor went down.

The mix of cultures and time periods is well captured in the orchestration, which manages to achieve a rich blend of traditional Chinese, Maori and European instruments while simultaneously feeling very spare and stripped down: there are only seven players, all of them seated in full view on one half of the stage, while the singers use the other. Conductor Peter Scholes (an essential presence at this festival, having also co-conducted the wonderful Passio concert last weekend) stands alone, spotlit, on one half of the lower stage, which has been covered with sand to represent the Hokianga foreshore: the strongest element in John Verryt's evocative, minimalist set. The lyrics are surtitled in multiple languages, with translations, on a rear screen which also displays surging waves and lonely coastal bush. Altogether the show is like a blueprint for the big 21st century Aotearoa landmark cultural event a festival would want to associate itself with. All it lacks is an easy-to-follow story and memorable music.

Liang's libretto is a witty, nimble mix of many elements, poetic, expressive, impressive on many levels. But my sense is that she has been living inside this narrative -- which she first began working on a decade ago -- for a little too long. It feels over-digested. The opera does not so much tell its story as refer to it; to know exactly what happened to the Ventnor and why it matters, and how Hokianga iwi became involved, you'll want to have consulted the programme booklet beforehand. Farr's music is all texture and mood, and its textures and moods are wonderful: timbres mingle and shift in ways that are at once fascinating and symbolically appropriate. There are no arresting themes. It's music to drift to.

This is absolutely a show worth seeing. I would like to say that it's also a work worthy of being restaged. Given the high costs of opera productions, that's a very difficult bar to get over; but it's surely the goal the festival would have set themselves. Admirable that they tried.

Auckland Arts Festival 2017

The Bone Feeder, ASB Waterfront, March 24, 25, 26.

 

 


Get Metro delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

 

/MetromagnzL @Metromagnz @Metromagnz

 

 

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Masterton's Aratoi Museum puts Ngati Kahungunu taonga on display
78086 2017-08-18 00:00:00Z History

Masterton's Aratoi Museum puts Ngati Kahungunu tao…

by Sharon Stephenson

Prized 19th-century artefacts are among iwi treasures that have returned to the Wairarapa.

Read more
Citizens around the world are suing over climate change
78244 2017-08-18 00:00:00Z Environment

Citizens around the world are suing over climate c…

by Rebecca Macfie

In the face of perceived political inaction on climate change, citizens worldwide are taking the case to court.

Read more
The best red wines under $20
78270 2017-08-18 00:00:00Z Wine

The best red wines under $20

by Michael Cooper

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t any good local pinot noirs for under $20, $25 or $30.

Read more
The trans-Tasman fracas exposes our ebbing importance in Australia
78232 2017-08-17 12:54:43Z World

The trans-Tasman fracas exposes our ebbing importa…

by The Listener

Relations with Australia were already quite bad, but this week’s citizenship fiasco has increased a feeling of mutual bad faith.

Read more
National chooses Todd Barclay's replacement
78225 2017-08-17 07:30:57Z Politics

National chooses Todd Barclay's replacement

by RNZ

The National Party has chosen its successor to fill disgraced MP Todd Barclay's shoes in the Clutha-Southland electorate.

Read more
Cost-cutting surgeons are using hardware tools in our hospitals
78204 2017-08-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

Cost-cutting surgeons are using hardware tools in …

by Jessica McAllen

Low standards and budget pressures inside our hospitals are driving surgeons and sterile services to break the rules and put patients at risk.

Read more
Russell Crowe's forgotten teenage photo shoot
78162 2017-08-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Russell Crowe's forgotten teenage photo shoot

by Frances Walsh

Thirty-five years ago, a young, unknown Russell Crowe - who went by the name Russ Le Roq - wandered into John Rykenberg's photography studio.

Read more
Q&A: Concert violinist Karen Gomyo
78157 2017-08-17 00:00:00Z Music

Q&A: Concert violinist Karen Gomyo

by Russell Baillie

The NZSO is among 30-odd orchestras to engage star violinist Karen Gomyo for concerts in 2017.

Read more