What’s Opera Got That Theatre Doesn’t?: A Conversational Review of "The Bonefeeder"

Alex Taylor, Frances Moore and Alice Canton discuss the nation's latest opera

The Bonefeeder, an opera by Gareth Farr and Renee Liang based on Liang's play of the same name, premiered at the Auckland Arts Festival in March 2017. Our panel of expert reviewers – composer and musician Alex Taylor, opera director Frances Moore and theatre practitioner Alice Canton – were on hand to welcome it into the world.

Alex Taylor: It's a pretty big deal whenever a new New Zealand opera comes around – what did we all go in expecting from The Bone Feeder?

Frances Moore: I was SO excited about this work! The story, about the 1902 Hokianga sinking of the SS Ventnor taking the bones of Chinese miners back to China, just seems so suited to an operatic treatment – ghosts, rituals, big emotions and questions around belonging.

And I was really impressed with how much care had been taken throughout the creative process. We've seen moments where the creative team has travelled to China and Mitimiti; there have been media stories about bai san – ancestor worship which includes the feeding the dead. So the setup has been inclusive and thought-provoking.

Alice Canton: Alex? What were you expecting?

AT: I guess my expectations were reasonably high because it was clear the producers thought that it was important to spend the time and resources to do the thing properly.

High stakes art-making becomes risk averse, timid.

AC: Yes, I was excited too. The idea of resource being invested, INVESTED into art-making in New Zealand – that alone makes me want to do a backflip.

I hoped it would be thrilling, theatrical, 'other-worldly'. The premise of this work is distinctly different to most other operas, in that it’s neither a light comedic marriage-fart or an epic romantic tragedy.

I guess it kind of met my expectation. It was pleasant and mild rather than moving or wild, but really, it’s never going to be those things, because there is so much time and energy put into it. High stakes art-making becomes risk averse, timid.

AT: Yes I think that's probably true. And the more layers of creative decision-making there are, the more difficult it becomes to go striding off in one direction.

FM: I think the thing that surprised me most was how much I thought, ‘oh, this is actually not dissimilar to other new New Zealand operas I've seen coming out of festivals for the last ten years.’ I'm thinking Hohepa and Brass Poppies. They share minimalist staging materials, a mostly naturalistic performance style, taonga puoro, historic subjects...

A question I have is why, in a work that is specifically cross-cultural, are the conventions still mostly Western? Why always an end-on staging? Why always big venues? The vocal lines too felt, mostly, very Western.

AC: I was interested in the potential for Cantonese opera to influence this show.

AT: I'm not sure I know enough about Cantonese opera to know whether it was a real influence on the work but to me the cultural intersection points felt like they were treated very traditionally, from a Western perspective.

AC: It carried with it all the tropes of cultural theatre that I often see in shows depicting historic and ‘cultural’ content: slow moving, reverential, static, and low stakes.

AT: That can be attractive – the reverential, slow-moving thing. But I think it can also lack dramatic pull.

FM: I was craving some actual physical investigation of the big topics on offer, but in the end there was very little of this.

For me, part of the problem was that all the elements of the show were doing the same thing – the physicality was often slow and stylised, the music repetitive, and the libretto also moving very slowly in what was revealed.

AC: I'm fine with that – if we break it, play with it, subvert it. But there was no serious investigation of pace or movement. No moments of urgency. Of stretch. Of running forward (or backwards).

We try to find commonalities, rather than letting each thing be ecstatically its own.

AT: One of the problems I have with musical projects that attempt this kind of cross-fertilisation – and I think this managed it better than some others, certainly in terms of how Gareth [composer Gareth Farr] managed the textures and colours of the ensemble – is that the specific musical languages, the different cultural elements, can get really flattened out in service of the whole. So for example, there was a lot of very, very slow moving harmony, a lot of drones, in order to accommodate the taonga puoro especially.

We try to find commonalities, rather than letting each thing be ecstatically its own and finding the intersection points.

For example the pukaea (a trumpet-like instrument), which was used so dramatically near the end of the work – how does that relate to the rest of the ensemble? Are there meaningful relationships and conversations (sympathetic or otherwise) between the instruments? I felt like the taonga puoro, although treated very reverentially, was used basically only for solo transitional passages. The Māori elements of the show felt underdeveloped in terms of how they related to the whole.

FM: It would have been lovely to have more dissonance, more presentation of how instruments oppose or work against each other.

AC: Do you think that Gareth was being tentative? Restrained? Respectful? What word am I searching for?

Interestingly, Theatre Stampede’s Spirit House had a traditional Thai musician, Pongsaporn Upani, collaborating with composer John Gibson, and the conversations I heard around that inter-cultural music collaboration were fascinating. Full of happy surprises, miscommunications, and the developing of a new language (not only in music, but the verbal and gestural act of communicating person-to-person).

AT: I have to say though I thought Gareth's music was very attractive, and it's by no means an easy ensemble to manipulate – to me it seems very inflexible, and he did a great deal with it.

FM: There were definitely many really beautiful moments, however I felt the vocal writing was not very varied.

Everything was mostly a standard operatic vocal approach, and it would have been exciting to have some more idiomatically Chinese and Māori vocal techniques. I'm not saying, ‘chuck a karanga in there to manipulate our feelings’, but as far as I could tell, we didn't hear any other forms of Māori singing taken from haka or moteatea, for example. The technique was entirely a Western operatic one.

AT: A lot of the vocals felt like a form of recitative. There were some standout moments – Kwan's last aria for example, sung so achingly well by tenor Jaewoo Kim – but I got rather bored of the chanting.

AC: So, just to clarify, recitative writing has a speech-like quality?

AT: Yeah, speech rhythms, small pitch range, rather than true melodies. There were definitely opportunities to play more with the voices. The male chorus pointed the way towards what more of the work could have been like – that energy that we expect from Gareth Farr's music.

AC: Yeah, perhaps before when I was mentioning the Cantonese opera as a possible influence, I was imagining some dynamic, shrill, and totally non-Western musical idiom. (I'm trying my best to not 'other' Cantonese opera).

I loved the male chorus too! Their ‘Gong Hey’ was such a lively number!.

FM: Their energy and playfulness was such a welcome break from the reverence. The moment they rolled onto the beach, suggesting the washing up of the bones, was so beautifully theatrically rendered. I wish that moment had been extended – that we could have stayed in this pivotal part of the story a bit longer. This moment also really highlighted Jane Hakaraia’s stunning, choreographic lighting design and the glorious sand foreshore, created by John Verryt.

AC: Oh yes, and the audience loved them too, you could hear the auditorium lift every time they came onstage.

We don’t want this to be the only shot.... How great if the approach was: ‘there was some great stuff here, strip the rest away and let’s go for round two’.

The more we muse on this, the more I think there was a missed opportunity for this to be an interesting inter-cultural collaboration. Well, it was, technically, but it used a very similar/shared language whereas the merit of diversity is in the difference.

AT: To be honest I think collaborations always pose this danger – of being smoothed over, and avoiding risk.

FM: So too well-meaning, and not risky enough? We're too hard to please..! But, the disappointment is because sometimes we're seeing new work and seeing potential and we don’t want this to be the only shot. So many resources are invested, and there is often only one opportunity to share this work with an audience – so the stakes are impossibly high. How great if the approach was: ‘there was some great stuff here, strip the rest away and let’s go for round two’.

And there was some great stuff here.

AT: I loved the casting, the costumes and the lighting. The singers’ diction was excellent – I understood every word. The use of the marimba – I suppose I expected Gareth to lean on it more, seeing as he’s so well known for his percussion writing, but he used it in a very restrained, sensitive way, to shadow and support the other instruments and the voices.

There were some lovely transitional bits, and the first time we heard solo taonga puoro… that was an absolutely gorgeous moment, that hushed flute-like voice emerging out of Kwan’s tenor line: “will I ever be warm?”

AC: I always love seeing the musicians. In fact, I couldn't stop watching that cellist play that gong.

AT: Ashley [Brown, the cellist] is always magnetic.

I loved the few moments when the voices were allowed to soar.

AC: I love how present the musicians were. The percussive bits reminded me of Lion Dancing and were a welcomed tonal shift. Especially as those instruments were unexpectedly played by the non-percussionists.

FM: I liked a lot of director Sara Brodie’s choreography – the incorporation of some kapa haka elements and the wiri in particular were really moving.

The implications of a Chinese English-speaking protagonist are so great... one that isn't a bookish nerd, a taxi driver, a doctor, or shyster fish’n’ chip shop owner.

AT: The physicality of the men was great. Will King in particular had this quite loose, rakish quality that reminded me of circus performers.

AC: The women's chorus also provided some beautiful, nuanced performances.

FM: They were beautiful, and I enjoyed the vocal textures for the first few women's choruses, but then wished they'd been asked to do something more. They were so static. I was also super frustrated that they didn't have much agency in the story. We saw one woman pining for a husband who has abandoned her, and she’s given no complexity. I was really irritated by that.

AC: I was incredibly moved when the protagonist Ben (Henry Choo) first came out. The implications of seeing a Chinese English-speaking male protagonist are so great. Greater than any of us can imagine. One that isn't rendered into a stereotype, isn't a bookish nerd, a taxi driver, a doctor, or shyster fish’n’ chip shop owner.

I can count on one hand the times I have encountered a leading Asian protagonist in a mainstage New Zealand production, notably Mei-Lin Hansen’s Mooncake and the Kumara, Chye-Ling Huang’s Call Of The Sparrow, and of course Renee’s [librettist Renee Liang’s] previous works which have all placed Chinese voices front and centre. It’s embarrassing how limited the opportunities are for Asian performers in Aotearoa, how invisible we are. I am a Chinese New Zealand theatre-maker and yet I’ve rarely experienced my own reality on a mainstage, in my own industry, my own country.

(I don’t count Miss Saigon or Butterfly, because they were written by White people for White people).

The Bonefeeder had a very un-unified ensemble, and I mean that in a good way, as in a ‘diverse, don’t-all-look-and-sound-the-same’ way, which is always a pleasure for the eyes and ears.

FM: Opera is currently seen as culturally elite and very Western, and it’s so brilliant to see work that clearly expresses our desire, as New Zealand makers, to bring in some other perspectives.

AC: Yes the work, from a creative and cultural level, did feel accessible. It wasn’t pushing a kind of intellectual or conceptual elitism. Do you think having an opera novice writing the libretto lowered the barriers of access too? And also a non-white, POC (Person of Colour), female writer?

AT: Yes, I think so, in that it addressed a topic that probably wouldn't have been addressed by a white writer. Having said that I think it’s a big ask for a playwright or poet to suddenly become a librettist.

FM: Renee is also a force all unto herself. So much of the PR I saw was her making connections personally, finding out the communities she was writing about and bringing them in. I don’t know many who are as good at that side of things and being so open about the process.

AC: It's worth acknowledging that, aside from the perceived policy-making box ticking action of commissioning a POC/Fem/novice to do an opera, it's still doing something different to what normally happens, right?

FM: Absolutely. It’s probably also worth acknowledging that we've not done these kinds of cross-cultural collaborations that often, especially collaborations that don’t include a dominant Western colonial point of view, so we're still figuring it out in terms of how it might work.

And I'm really sorry to say that, for me, it didn't quite deliver. It was beautiful, but also a bit boring. And this is not a boring story! I felt that the structure of the story-telling was very confused, with too much reflection on emotion, but not enough narrative and action.

AT: For me it's the stasis again. The action of the opera could have been achieved in 10 minutes. In my experience, collaborations work best when they're led by the creative team, or more specifically the composer-librettist relationship, rather than by a festival director. So, for example, Ross Harris and Vincent O'Sullivan have been working together for years, and whatever you think about O'Sullivan's poetry, his libretto for Brass Poppies really worked. He’s worked out how to do it.

Speaking personally, there's really very little text that I would be happy to set... there needs to be potential in the words, some kind of opening or gap, that only music could fill.

AC: In terms of what we saw and heard, I felt like the music and libretto went together well, but it wasn't hugely dynamic. Is it up to the composer to go “oi, can you make it a bit more interesting?”

AT: Yes it is, or to cut the bits they don't like, or repeat or extend the bits they do.

But writing a libretto is a very specific skill, and also being able to hear the 'settability' of text (as a composer) is also a specific skill. Speaking personally, there's really very little text that I would be happy to set, because it's usually already too musical in itself, if that makes sense. I tend to gravitate to poetry where the words do a lot of work, without being overly florid or ‘poetic’. For me there needs to be potential in the words, some kind of opening or gap, that only music could fill.

FM: There’s that question of why opera, and what can opera offer that theatre doesn't?

AC: So, what can opera offer? And what did it offer in this particular iteration of this work, given it was previously a dramatic text?

What problems – dramaturgic, narrative and emotional – can be solved through an operatic/musical score that a plain-Jane stage show can't? And by ‘solved’ I mean enhanced, accelerated, teased out etc.

I think opera gravitates towards the surreal and the uncanny much more than theatre does.

FM: Opera and music can talk directly to emotion – the text can say something, while the musical phrase to which it is set reveals a whole other universe of thought.

AT: I think opera gravitates towards the surreal and the uncanny much more than theatre does. That's not to say theatre can't do it, but theatre is always grounded somewhere in realism. I think opera goes beyond language, or it can do, which theatre people can often really struggle with (in watching an opera).

I think one big difference is the ability to manipulate time without disrupting our suspension of disbelief. Opera can hold stasis and then rush forward into action.

I don’t want you to show me spiritual – I want to feel it myself.

FM: We had so many different worlds acknowledged in the story – a historic setting and the present, three different cultures, alive and dead characters, yet none of these were presented that differently – they all had the same musical and poetic tropes and ideas applied.

AT: That was another element that felt smoothed over – the disjunction between the living world and the dead.

AC: Yeah, the staging and AV didn’t create strong distinctions between these different worlds.

FM: I felt like the AV was grasping towards the spiritual. But I don’t want you to show me spiritual – I want to feel it myself.

For me, one of the best moments was the bai san ritual at the end. It was simple, honest and moving. Having Ben pull out the oranges, Te Oti Rakena as the Ferryman bring in some water and then the reveal of a packet of chips… it was such a nice touch – tying together past and present in such a clear way.

AC: I did like those moments of more overt social/political observations about Asian re-presentation by Renee, especially in the song which commented on Poll Tax and discriminatory legislation. I really enjoyed the moment where they all struck a ghastly peace-sign wielding pose which felt like a reference to NZ Opera's recent contemporary-orientalist Mikado!

Bone Feeder sets a precedent where we can say: you did it once – so no more excuses.

FM: It's crazy that within the same month you can see an entirely diverse opera cast and an almost entirely White cast play 'Asians'.

It’s really great that Bone Feeder sets a precedent where we can say: you did it once – so no more excuses.

AT: Absolutely, and we should expect NZ Opera's own future productions (this was a co-production led by the festival) to cast much more diversely.

AC: I must admit, depositing a cross-cultural love story into this work (Kwan’s relationship with his wife who was White) without talking about racism was interesting... well, there was no major conflict (i.e. HOW U SO DIFFERENT TO ME), but I was kinda relieved – at least the story didn't get railroaded by White people.

That’s why this work is so important, so crucial, so necessary. It's doing a lot politically and socially, even if it wasn't always achieving to that same level artistically or creatively?

AT: Yes there were moments that jarred like this where I felt the work passed over these little tangents that could have been a whole arc in themselves. I didn't just want to hear what had happened though, I wanted it to actually happen, and to tease out the consequences of the conflicts.

FM: And these tensions could be much more specific in how they unfold. There is tension, for example, between the place of food within bai san, and traditional protocols/ kawa, which prohibit food within the tapu space of an urupā. But none of these differences came to the surface.

AC: Well, yeah, if we really dive into the social politics, this story is one massive drama after another.... but it felt like it was all rendered out (it was only an hour though). We cannot talk about Māori and Chinese settler cultures without talking about violence, about discrimination, about marginalisation. Our history in this country is tainted with the blood and shit and piss of racism.

If it had been full of acute and challenging social observations about inter-cultural conflict between Chinese, Māori, and Pākehā, I wouldn't have cared if the music had been a toothless man playing a saw.

All photographs: GATE photography by Candice Whitmore

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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