Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua

09/12/2022 - 11/12/2022

Production Details

Composer and Lyricist – Tim Finn
Tahitian Monologist – Célestine Hitiura Vaite
Co-composer - Tom McLeod

Director – John G Davies
Conductor – Uwe Grodd
Translator and Language Coach – Ena Manuireva

Lighting Designer – Bryce Holmes
Principal Répétiteur – David Kelly

Presented by NZ Opera

Aboard a cramped British scientific vessel in the vastness of the Pacific, two navigators find themselves locked on a collision course. One is a Tahitian priest, guided by his ancient knowledge of star pathways. The other a naval officer, desperate to prove both himself and his faith in science.  

This beautiful and haunting new work by composer Tim Finn with Tahitian Orero by Célestine Hitiura Vaite tells the story of Tupaia, the Tahitian star navigator who sailed with James Cook, on the maiden voyage of the Endeavour in 1769. Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator explores the relationship between two master mariners, both far from home and unable to find their way into each other’s world.

A concert performance with New Zealand Opera and Orchestra Wellington.

To round out a successful post-Covid 2022 season, New Zealand Opera will hold its final performance of the year, Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator, at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua across two dates in December.

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua
Friday 9 December 2022 at 8pm
Sunday 11 December 2022 at 2pm
Tickets are available now at https://nzopera.com/ihitai-aveia-star-navigator-2022/

Originally premiering in Auckland in 2021 to rave reviews, the Porirua shows will bring heart and soul to the region’s calendar in this festive season. Composed by Tim Finn and with Tahitian monologues by Célestine Hitiura Vaite, Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator has had the help of more than 200 people to bring the 75-minute production to the stage.

It boasts a cast of principals well known to New Zealand opera lovers. Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono – who was the recipient of the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Scholarship at the 2022 Lexus Song Quest – will sing Tupaia, Paul Whelan stars as James Cook, Marlena Devoe brings Purea to life and Norah Stevenson-Tuuga will perform Célestine’s Tahitian monologues.

This beautiful and haunting production tells the story of Tupaia, a Tahitian star navigator, and his time on board James Cook’s Endeavour. He sailed from Tahiti with Cook on the Endeavour’s maiden voyage in 1769, but the two navigators of genius were unable to find their way into each other’s world.

The work is a collaboration between two artists who come from different cultures but share the same passion for telling stories set in the immensity of the Pacific. Growing up in Te Awamutu not far from the coast, Tim Finn has always had an affinity for the ocean and astronomy, and he marvels at how the story has evolved and attracted new audiences to opera.

Tim Finn says, “Visiting the replica Endeavour in Sydney harbour nine years ago with my then eight year-old son gave me the idea. Two navigators, one ship. Cook and Tupaia going head-to-head. Something about the claustrophobic confines of the master cabin, the obvious tensions and misunderstandings that must have occurred. It seemed dramatic and spoke to our current dilemma…where are we going? How will we get there?

“During the writing of Ihitai ‘Avei’a-Star Navigator, I visited the sacred island of Raiatea twice with my family. I stood on Taputapuatea marae and watched as the twin-hulled voyaging canoe Hokule’a was called in through the reef. Tahitian writer Celestine Hitiura Vaite became my collaborator on the libretto and Tom Mcleod my collaborator on the score. The finished work was produced by New Zealand Opera, and had its world premiere in Manukau in March 2021. It was a success. Many people who came had never been to the opera before. I’m very excited to be given the chance to stage Ihitai again, this time in Porirua. I have found the world of opera to be open to new ideas, new people.”

At the time she partnered with Tim Finn in late 2018, Ms Vaite, a Tahitian novelist published in 17 countries with a personal connection to the story itself, had been passionately researching Ancient Tahiti for two years. She says, “I think it’s wonderful of Tim that we were invited to the project, and I feel honoured, because there are a lot of stories about Tahitians, but it is rare that we are invited to participate. Often the people who write our stories don’t truly understand Tahitians. In this opera, Purea is not my direct tupuna ancestor, but descends from the same Ari’i Royal genealogy. As for Ari’i Tupaia, he would have met my direct ancestor Ari’i Manea, both being high-priests in 1769, when Cook arrived in Tahiti on the Endeavour.”

New Zealand Opera’s General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess says Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator marked a watershed in re-imagining opera for Aotearoa New Zealand. “It has been an honour to witness this moving and spiritually uplifting work come togetherIn Auckland we were able to share it with over 40% of our audience new to NZ Opera. What a wonderful way to close out such a successful year.”

Audience feedback has been stellar, and Mary Jaksch of Nelson spoke of the spellbinding effect of the story. “I have experienced standing ovations in leading European opera houses, but I have never witnessed anything like the response to Ihitai’Avei’a Star Navigator. It was as if the cries of anguish and relief were wrung from our souls. Célestine Hitiura Vaite’s prayer for this piece came to pass. She said:  May you be profoundly touched, the soul, Turn to us all. The reason I am writing to you is that those who experienced this concert were not only profoundly touched, we were transformed.” 

Purea – Marlena Devoe
Tupaia – Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
James Cook – Paul Whelan
Orator – Norah Stevenson-Tuuga
Teata – Risatisone Malagamaalii

Orchestra Wellington

Sung in English and Tahitian with English surtitles

Opera , Theatre ,

1 hr 30 min - Friday & Sunday only

Lead roles full of endeavour

Review by Max Rashbrooke 12th Dec 2022

Two men on board an 18th-century sailing ship, living in the claustrophobic environment below decks, operating opposed navigational systems that stand in for their mutually misunderstood world views: such is the setting of a new and innovative opera based on the relationship between Captain James Cook and Tupaia, a Tahitian leader and “star navigator” who sailed on the Endeavour.

The core of the show comprises songs by Tim Finn, orchestrated by Tom McLeod and complemented by monologues by Tahitian writer Célestine Hitiura Vaite. A small cast of characters – an orator, Cook, Tupaia and his acolyte Teata, and Tahitian noblewoman Purea – are backed by Orchestra Wellington and a massed choir combining the forces of some of the capital’s leading outfits. [More]


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Creative, exciting and entirely relevant to present-day Aotearoa

Review by Dave Armstrong 10th Dec 2022

Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator is one of three New Zealand operas commissioned and/or presented by NZ Opera in recent years, the other two being The Strangest of Angels and Unruly Tourists. Although the soon-to-end tenure of artistic director Thomas de Mallet Burgess has not been without its controversies, he deserves high praise for getting these operas – Covid delays notwithstanding – off the ground.

The idea of a New Zealand Opera company not creating and performing New Zealand operas is ridiculous. Yet before Burgess took the reins, although the standard of many ‘cover version’ operas our national company presented was very high, New Zealand composers and librettists could have been forgiven for thinking that daring to write an opera would probably be a futile endeavour.

Not so now. Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator is written by one of New Zealand’s most talented and prolific songwriters, Tim Finn, ably assisted by Célestine Hitiura Vaite and Tom McLeod. This is certainly not the first time the Time and Tide (Split Enz) songwriter has involved himself with nautical themes.

As well as having the ability to write catchy and memorable melodies, Finn is also a superb lyricist. He moves the story along – telling Tupaia’s story of his ill-fated voyage to Aotearoa and beyond with James Cook – economically and powerfully within ninety minutes, without overly expositional lyrics. I also love how Finn is not scared to use accessible rhymes like forever/Endeavour, between us/Venus that librettists without a pop background might shy away from.

Tahitian writer Célestine Hitiura Vaite’s Tahitian monologues are beautifully lyrical and poetic and add enormous Pacific flavour to the piece. Being a Polynesian language, Tahitian has strong similarities to Māori. Tupaia was able to converse with Māori when he visited Aotearoa and helped Cook avoid some ugly conflicts. The use of both Tahitian and English gives the work freshness and orignality – this is no ‘Bali Ha’i’.

Composer and musical supervisor Tom McLeod completes the cohesive writing team. McLeod gives Orchestra Wellington a lot to do, and they rise to the occasion admirably, under the secure direction of conductor Uwe Grodd. Juxtaposing Pacific instruments with a standard symphony orchestra can be risky – but it works well with McLeod’s lush and sensitive orchestration. I particularly liked McLeod’s ample use of Polynesian flutes, used to eerie effect, and drums, as well as the pūtātara (conch shell).

Given that Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator features a famous Pacific voyager, it was nice to see NZ Opera present this concert performance in Porirua, with its large Pasifika population, at the Te Rauparaha Arena. And thanks to the wonderful Pasifika performers who entertained the audience beforehand.

Having endured the terrible acoustics of the Wellington Events Centre, I must admit to some trepidation as I entered the vast space. But it is a good venue for the large forces involved –orchestra, cast and three choirs – and it has way better acoustics than its Wellington counterpart. Electrical amplification is used, but it is never heavy-handed. The words can be heard easily, and there are surtitles if they’re not, and when translation is required.

In this concert version, Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator resembles an oratorio more than an opera, with large but mainly static forces and simple, though very effective staging. Director John G Davies has marshalled the large numbers involved sensitively and artistically. Tim Finn wonders if this is “an opera disguised as a concert”. For me, the large set pieces, especially involving the chorus, are the most successful part of the work. Perhaps Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator is a concert disguised as an opera, but however one defines it, it works very well.

The music is mainly tonal and highly singable. The large chorus provides many catchy tunes and I like the way, in keeping with the bicultural nature of the story, we can move from Polynesian ‘music of the skies’ to guitar – and piano-heavy European-style sea shanties.

Tupaia makes a superb operatic central character. A high priest and Tahitian master navigator, he joins Cook’s voyage to Aotearoa and beyond on the Endeavour with his ten-year-old assistant, Teata, whom he loves like a son. Tupaia must leave his lover Purea, who warns him that when the big ships arrive that old ways are lost. Purea is not on the journey but appears throughout in spectral form. Director John G Davies meets this challenge well by placing Purea behind the orchestra and in front of the excellent choir, consisting of members of the Orpheus Choir, NZ Opera Chorus and Signature Choir: Wellington’s versatile Pasifika choir.

At the heart of Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator is the dramatic conflict between Cook’s and Tupaia’s differing ideas of navigation. Tupaia can navigate his way around the Pacific literally using his hands and his extensive knowledge of the stars. Yet Cook thinks this is essentially religion not science. In this telling of the story, Tupaia’s expert navigation skills are ignored by Cook and he is insulted to be given the patronising title of ‘negotiator.’

The now-famous map, or mosaic, that Tupaia drew of the Pacific made no sense to Cook who dismissed it as a drawing. Cook tells us he trusts “compasses and secants” and “mathematics and science”.

Can so-called ‘Western’ scientists learn from indigenous methods and vice-versa? This issue is still one that is debated today – we remember the recent controversial ‘In Defence of Science’ letter to The Listener from various scientists criticising the Department of Education’s weighting of Mātauranga Māori in the school curriculum.

This makes the conflicts and debates at the heart of Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator enormously relevant, and Finn gives both Cook and Tupaia some excellent ammunition, some of Cook’s being directly from his journals.

I also like the way Finn and Vaite focus on the status contrasts of the two men – Cook is a working-class Yorkshire lad who had to fight his way up to captain a ship, while Tupaia is a high priest and of royal blood.

As Cook, Paul Whelan does an excellent job both in singing and acting the part. He is essentially the antagonist of the piece, but also elicits our sympathy for Cook – unable to comprehend the worldview and highly successful, yet totally different, navigation methods of another culture.

Contrasting Whelan’s rich bass baritone is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono’s soaring tenor. Tim Finn himself was an extraordinary tenor in his heyday, so knows how to write a virtuoso part for that voice. Fonoti-Fuimaono succeeds admirably, singing, as Tupaia spoke, in a combination of Tahitian and English. My favourite aria of Tupaia’s is ‘My Last Breath’ where he explains how he will pass on his sacred knowledge when his time comes.

Fonoti-Fuimaono’s scenes with his lover, Purea, beautifully sung by soprano Marlena Devoe, are also most effective, especially her powerful altissimo octaves with Fonoti-Fuimaono towards the end of the piece. Risatisone C Malagamaali’i makes an excellent Teata – acting the part with charm, charisma and compassion, and also singing very nicely at the end.

Aiolupotea Norah Stevenson-Tuuga completes the excellent cast and orates beautifully. The love between Tupaia and Teata, and their tragic ends in Batavia, is poignant and beautiful. Thanks to the gamelan-inspired music, we know we are in Batavia before we are told – excellent musical storytelling.

I really like the end of this bicultural production, which is entirely relevant to present-day Aotearoa. Tupaia and Teata are dead – now stars in the night sky. Cook will go on to great fame and his star will shine brightly in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a lovely tonal moment, until a couple of high harp notes add a little unease and beautiful dissonance – perhaps not such a happy ending after all.

Thomas de Mallet Burgess describes this production as part of “a journey to understand and better embrace the bi-cultural and cross-cultural richness that is our country.” Despite any turbulence that may have occurred along the way, Ihitai’avei’a Star Navigator shows that the journey has a been a creative and exciting one.


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