The Bone Feeder is an opera that started out as a play. It was written by Renee Liang in 2007, inspired by stories of early Chinese New Zealanders who came here as gold miners in the late 19th century.
It’s the story of the SS Ventnor, “a steamer carrying the bones of 501 New Zealand Chinese to Hong Kong so they could be buried in family graves with full traditional rites.” But the Ventnor hit a reef off Taranaki, and ended up sinking near the Hokianga. Years later, the ship started disintegrating and the bones washed up on the shore. The iwi of the Hokianga found them, and realising these bones belonged to someone’s family, decided to look after them and bury them in their own family graves.
As we take our seats in the theatre, the scene is set with a large screen as the backdrop, and a simple stage setting, with the front of the stage transformed into a sandy shore.
There are seven musicians on stage, including a marimba, violin, cello, Taonga Pūoro – Maori instruments, and Guzheng, Erhu, and Dizi – Chinese instruments.
The first scene has a dreamlike quality, with Maori and Cantonese soloists’ (Te Oti Rakena and Dilys Fong) voices intertwined, and soft subtle music played by the musicians. Rakena sits near the front singing in flowing Te Reo, while Fong sings in Cantonese, swaying in an elegant dance on centre stage, wearing long Chinese silk robes. The way the two languages overlapped was quite beautiful.
As the show progressed, I wondered what it would have been like as a play, and how that would have compared. The surrealness of the story fits well with this classical format.
Watching it unfold, I was struck by the emotive quality of the opera, and how it’s used for dramatic storytelling. For those who don’t usually go to see opera, don’t be put off. This show tells an interesting story, a piece of forgotten New Zealand history illuminated in a modern opera setting.
A fun part of the show was hearing some Kiwi slang in the parts sung in English. I haven’t been to many operas, but I’m pretty sure this is the first one where I heard the word ‘bro’ sung as part of the dialogue. Te Oti Rakena did this seamlessly, singing in Maori and English as The Ferryman, adding a true Kiwi flavour to the evening.
There were eerie harmonies when the Chinese miners and female chorus sang together, contrasted with bright cheerful harmonies in the next scene, when the trio of ghosts introduce themselves, and play tricks on the new visitor Ben (a strong performance from Henry Choo). The ghosts (William King, Clinton Fung, David Hwang) made a great team, ducking and diving around the stage, making lots of jokes and getting up to mischief.
It was awesome to see – and hear – the whirring of the pūrerehua (bullroarer) on stage (played by James Webster). One of the other musicians,Julian Renlong Wong, danced across the stage playing Dizi (Chinese flute) at one point, a nice touch and very impressive.
It was moving to see Ben and Kwan singing a duet, where Ben sings “I am adrift, I have no anchor”, reflecting that migrants of any generation can feel lost, and torn between cultures.
The two main female characters – Wei Wei and Louisa, both sang beautifully, giving memorable performances. Louisa (Chelsea Dolman) is sweet and charming when she first sees Kwan (Jaewoo Kim) who won her over instantly. Wei Wei (Xing Xing) gave a poignant performance as the wife that was left behind. Kim gave a brilliant performance as Kwan, portraying the yearning spirit of a ghost trying to reconnect to his lost family.
Towards the end, it struck me that this was the first time I’d seen a modern New Zealand opera, based on a real piece of our history. It was a story I didn’t know, and it was fascinating to get an insight into the lives of the early Chinese settlers. Full credit to the creative team for putting this together so beautifully in three languages, (Maori, English, and Cantonese) in a way that reconnects our history to the present day.
The Bone Feeder is on until 26 March at the ASB Waterfront Theatre.
Tickets from ticketmaster.co.nz