From its opening scene, dominated by the imposing presence and performance of Te Oti Rakena's Ferryman, The Bone Feeder offers an extraordinary operatic experience.
The inspiration for Renee Liang's libretto - the off-shore sinking of a "coffin ship" taking Chinese bodies back to their homeland - makes for a moving tale of a cultural tragedy from our chequered history. However, the opera's subtle time shifts, from Rawene in 2017 to China in 1855, will be clearer with a pre-performance consultation of the online libretto.
Sara Brodie's staging stresses the static and stylised, against a backdrop of evocative film footage and crucial subtitles in English Chinese and Maori. Gareth Farr is a skilled and savvy composer with an unabashed love of opera evident in his expansive, lyrical writing.
Henry Choo is arresting as Ben, rediscovering his roots in the Rawene graveyard, complemented by the eloquent tenor of Jaewoo Kim as the ghost Kwan. Other male singers represent the Chinese miners with humour on the side, while five women range from wordless chorus to Maori chant, with strong solos from Xing Xing and Chelsea Dolman.
For some years, our composers have been exploring Maori and Chinese instruments. The ensemble of seven places taonga puoro and guzheng alongside violin, cello and marimba. It bewitches and, in itself, well warrants a second visit to this thought-provoking production.
What: The Bone Feeder
Where and: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until Sunday
Reviewer: William Dart