It's fair to say Renee Liang was disappointed when she learned her play, The Bone Feeder, wouldn't be part of the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival.

After all, it was one of the first times a real and significant piece of New Zealand Chinese history had been presented in a large-scale production. Surely, thought Liang, it had all the elements for a festival showing?

But as she puzzled over the rejection, AAF artistic director Carla van Zon was making bigger plans.

The Bone Feeder is now one of the most remarkable productions in this year's AAF programme. An ode to the shared history of NZ Chinese, Maori and Pakeha, it is the world's first opera which combines Chinese, Maori and Western instrumentation and is sung in Cantonese, English and te reo Maori.


Van Zon approached Liang in 2014 about the idea of an opera. She hadn't staged the play because she wanted to find a way for Liang to "step up" and work with people who would push her to develop her skills.

A second-generation Chinese New Zealander, Liang is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and fiction writer but she'd only ever written two libretti (words for an opera) before. She also had a toddler and a relatively new baby.

"It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull," she says, "because I'm the kind of person who gets presented with an idea and thinks, 'I can't do that, I don't know anything about that', and then I can't resist the challenge."

Van Zon placed her in good company. Staged in association with NZ Opera, the music has been composed by Gareth Farr, Sara Brodie is directing and Peter Scholes is conducting while the backstage team includes some of the country's most renowned designers: John Verryt, Elizabeth Whiting and Jane Hakaraia.

"Carla said she wanted me to work with people that would push me and, yes, I have had to pull up my socks and be better," says Liang, who says she's strengthened character arcs and sharpened the story.

It's an astounding story, one of those chapters in our history which resonates today because it raises questions about home, belonging, identity and how those things are affected by time, generational differences, blood ties and relationships to place.

In 1902, the SS Ventnor was en route from Otago to Canton carrying the bones of 499 Chinese miners bound for ancestral graves. It was considered important for Chinese to return to their home villages and many of those who migrated to New Zealand to work (mainly in the gold fields) thought of themselves as visitors. Those who died here were buried in temporary graves.

The local Chinese community, led by businessman Choie Sew Hoy, raised the then vast sum of £4000 to charter the SS Ventnor and carry the exhumed bones home to China. But they never made it. The Ventnor struck a reef off the Taranaki Coast and was attempting to limp around Cape Reinga to Auckland, but the damage was too severe and it sank near Hokianga Harbour.

The coffins and bones were lost (along with 13 crewmen and Chinese attendants accompanying the bones) but some remains washed ashore where they were found by local Maori and buried in family urupa.

Like Liang, award-winning composer and percussionist Gareth Farr says he couldn't turn down the chance to write his first opera. Describing himself as a composer who likes to bring a dramatic angle to his music, he says the idea and the story encompassed everything he likes about writing music.

"It was totally exciting and so up my alley that it couldn't have been more perfect," he says. "It's such a wonderful Kiwi story that focuses around the Chinese community which, I think, we still don't accept as an integral part of our world."

Already adept at writing lyrics in te reo Maori and music for Maori instruments, he relished the chance to join Liang on a research trip to China to learn more about Cantonese music. They were guided by pianist-composer Gao Ping.

"Cantonese is a nightmare to set to music because it uses the same word for up to nine different things but there are different pitch inflections as each tone represents a separate meaning; get it wrong and you could be saying something quite unlike what you intended," Farr says.

"My big question was, 'if I'm going to invent melody, I have to consider this tonality which is a kind of music already so how do I reconcile this?'"

Gao Ping told him he'd have to consider the existing melody of the spoken words and incorporate it into the music.

Farr also learned from watching musicians at work. At a smaller cabaret show, he got as close as he could to the stage where he could observe, photograph and take notes about the ways the musicians played.

"They were quite bemused by a tall, white guy taking such an interest in what they were doing."

Much to Farr's delight, he and Liang visited music stores where he got to try out (and buy) Chinese percussion instruments. He acknowledges it's just as well Liang had a generous baggage allowance or they might not have been able to bring back the 20kg Chinese gong he bought.

But for both, one of the most moving experiences was joining the Sew Hoy family to visit a memorial to Choie Sew Hoy, whose bones were also on the SS Ventnor, and participate in a bai san ceremony held to honour the dead.

When they returned to New Zealand, they travelled with The Bone Feeder director Sara Brodie to Mitimiti Beach where, a century before, the bones were gathered up for burial on Maunga Hione. The trio performed their own bai san which, Farr says, felt like a fitting way to begin their work.

"The idea that the instruments can function together so harmoniously, well, it's a societal analogy isn't it? There's a beautiful lesson to be learnt there."

* Jaewoo Kim and Henry Choo, both from Australia, alongside New Zealand performer Te Oti Rakena take the lead roles. They are supported by emerging opera talents Xing and Chelsea Dolman; Clinton Fung, William King and David Hwang play miners and the female chorus comprises Sarah Court, Dilys Fong, Helen Kim and Kararaina Walker. Instrumentalists include NZTrio's Justine Cormack (violin) and Ashley Brown (cello), Taonga Puoro specialist James Webster, Rebecca Celebuski on marimba and, on traditional Chinese instruments, Dr Nicholas Ng on Erhu from Australia, Julian Renlong Wong on dizi and Chinese New Zealand Guzheng player Xi Yao Chen.

What: Auckland Arts Festival - The Bone Feeder
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 23 - 26