ASB Waterfront Theatre, 138 Halsey St, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland

19/03/2017 - 26/03/2017

Auckland Arts Festival 2017

Production Details

The Bone Feeder is a new opera, beautifully and imaginatively scored by Gareth Farr and written by poet and playwright Renee Liang, which explores the mysteries, traumas and gifts of migration, home and belonging.

A young Chinese man searching for his roots is guided by a magical cicada and Māori Ferryman. He crosses to ‘the other side’, where ghosts reveal secrets of love, loss and betrayal. His attempt to uncover his ancestor’s bones disturbs the earth and, ultimately, threatens his life.

Directed by Sara Brodie and conducted by Peter Scholes, the opera takes Gareth Farr’s unique combination of Western, Māori and Chinese instruments to create sweeping and playful music sung in English, Māori and Cantonese.

Slip through the gateway between East and West, reality and myth, past and present and encounter music and a story never before experienced on a New Zealand stage.

The Bone Feeder is inspired by the story of the SS Ventnor, which sank off the Hokianga coast and is a lost part of New Zealand’s history. It is grounded in the experiences of early Chinese settlers and their interactions with Pākehā and Māori.

Tickets: $66 – $99

THU 23 MAR 8:00 PM

FRI 24 MAR 8:00 PM

SAT 25 MAR 8:00 PM

SUN 26 MAR 6:30 PM


Theatre , Opera ,

1 hr 20 mins

No Place Like Home

Review by Nathan Joe 28th Mar 2017

Let’s get one thing out of the way: an opera with a primarily East Asian cast is a big deal. This is doubly the case in light of NZ Opera’s recent production of The Mikado and its yellowface controversy. Regardless of how you feel about the representation of Asian characters on stage, it’s always refreshing to see them as something more than just satirical vessels.

Renee Liang has taken her play The Bone Feeder and found a new medium for it. Not having seen the original productions I can’t claim to know how it’s changed or improved, but it’s undeniably at home in the realm of opera. By digging up the bones of early Chinese miners whose lives were lost in the shipwreck of the SS Vendor in 1902, Liang tells a fictional story grounded in actual New Zealand history. [More]


Make a comment

A moving experience

Review by William Dart 28th Mar 2017

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. [More]  


Make a comment

Moving libretto, genius musical amalgam

Review by Michael Hooper 24th Mar 2017

A river runs through us all. This haunting production takes the tributaries of three cultures familiar to Kiwis, questions and resolves their commonalities and clashes, and braids them into a new and unique musical tikanga. In doing so it illuminates the Auckland Arts Festival not just as a talent curator, but as incubator, instigator, disrupter and innovator. The co-creation of this time-transcendent score and striking story also marks a breakthrough for New Zealand Opera, revealing an appetite for adventure and relevance. 

I have seldom approached a theatre seat with such a frisson of anticipation, fed by the laudable advance publication of programme and libretto on-line, and sharpened by the prospect of composer Gareth Farr, director Sara Brodie and conductor Peter Scholes combining their own creative tributaries to wash the sand from one of the most fascinating stories buried in our previous century. How has this not been a full-blown film? 

The programme gives the historical background:

On October 26, 1902, the steamship SS Ventnor left Wellington bound for China with 499 coffins containing exhumed Chinese bodies. Chinese had by then been in New Zealand for a half century – here to work and send money home for their families. They believed that if they did not return home, they would become hungry ghosts, unable to care for their families nor be cared for in turn. The SS Ventnor never reached its goal: it struck a rock as it limped towards Hokianga Harbour. Over time, the distinctive coffins floated ashore, to be found by Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi.

Local oral history tells the secret of bones found and kept safe until their families came for them. In 2013, this at last came true when a delegation of Chinese, the descendants and kin of those lost, travelled North to thank the iwi for their guardianship. The Bai san ceremony was performed in order to ‘feed the bones’ and finally satisfy those hungry ghosts. 

The manifest of the Ventnor was lost, and only the coffin of Dunedin-based pioneer Choie Sew Hoy was identified. During the extensive research, Gareth Farr accompanied members of the family to Guangzhou, where he had an epiphany with Chinese instruments, building Cantonese Opera sounds into his long-standing Asian percussion affair with gamelan in particular.

The story written and now crafted into a libretto by second generation Chinese New Zealander Renee Liang, at the behest of the Auckland Arts Festival, brings the boy Ben to the Northland beach where he faces his Chinese tupuna and whakapapa. It raises more than bones and ghosts. It asks who we are, what is our family and even whether we die only once. It sits the bones of the dead up in a place where we can see them and they us. It tenderly coaxes us to recognise, perhaps with surprise, the common spirituality and tikanga shared by Māori and Chinese.

Even on paper, Renee’s lyrics are deeply moving and revealing, shiveringly enthralling, spinning their cocoon of mysticism and spirituality, brittle beauty and deep sadness. Fortunately the libretto is dotted with enough humour to occasionally rattle the reverence that threatens to drag down the production.

From the start we are clued into the ethos of the show by a musical ensemble that occupies over a third of the stage space. This is the energy source, a brilliantly conceived and executed musical amalgam. I use the word advisedly, as this is a combination of elements that exhibits strength and character beyond that of the components yet, unlike a composite, retains their individual properties. Who could conceive of such an extraordinary and balanced incarnation of sound that does not even share the same concept of tonality? One is tempted to answer with the word genius.

Orbiting over Māori instrument player James Webster, a purerehua starts a ghostly wind blowing as conductor Peter Scholes raises his arms. The Ferryman, substituting Hokianga for Styx, is at Rawene Wharf, debating the harbour crossing with young Ben Kwan. Don’t mess with what you don’t understand, he warns. The stage is simply layered with rostra and rippled with sand, the colours are mostly dark, and a cinemascopic background graphic keys into our location.

Soon we will meet the kōauau (nose flute), and other taonga pūoro, as unfamiliar to many New Zealanders as the erhu (two-stringed fiddle) or the guzheng (zither). Add marimba and cello, interpose them with the sweet tension of Justine Cormack’s vintage violin and the nimble piquancy of Julian Renlong Wong’s dizi (flute) and the unimaginable becomes real but ethereal. Could the background now be sand or a terraced rice paddy? 

Like a stranger in paradise, Ben, played by Henry Choo, has the eyes through which we see the beach of Mitimiti where the Chinese corpses were given up by Tangaroa the sea god. Ben has been led here by a jade cicada, traditionally placed in the mouth at burial as a symbol of immortality. A respected coloratura tenor, Henry Choo comfortably shoulders much of the responsibility for the quite-narrative, sometimes almost recitative, content of the 80 minutes. Ben’s ancestor, Kwan, is easily sung in suitably subdued sepulchral fashion by Korean/Australian tenor Jaewoo Kim.

Kwan’s wives, “the two trees that flower apart”, are sung by sopranos Chelsea Dolman and Xing Xing, who coast through their notes fluidly and with clarity. The considerable abilities of all these singers are challenged little by Farr’s score.

The respect given by the creative team to the amazing, fact-based story, its sombre subject matter, and perhaps a large dose of cultural sensitivity, do tend to quell the horror and hunger of ghosts lying in limbo for some 115 years.  So when flute player Wong slips unexpectedly from his rostrum, transforming magically into a Pan-like cicada that dances and hops with angular delicacy across the stage playing all the while, it is a kinetic injection that contrasts the otherwise muted choreography of the other characters.

When it comes to character, it also falls to The Ferryman, Te Oti Rakena, to add a touch of horopito. With a natural cheer he easily spills out “bro” and gets a titter from the audience at his description of “Hokianga hooch” and “pissing off” the kehua (ghosts). His textured baritone bonhomie swaggers effortlessly over the footlights. 

Likewise, the trio of ghostly miners, livened up with a touch of Szechuan pepper by Clinton Fung, William King and David Hwang, lift the energy with their Gong Hei song, observing the Gweilo who “speak Chinese at business school … or blame us for the housing need”. The female ensemble is equally clear and beautifully balanced, but performs more traditionally as a chorus, pointing to or underscoring the main action.

It is a pity that Gareth Farr did not get his “substantial choir” to give fuller throat and physical resonance, but the gentle poise, precision and clarity of the ensemble of six do expose the potential of the work, which is surely part of the purpose of an inaugural festival commission. In getting the piece to this point, the festival and all involved may take a deep bow, and hopefully future productions will be encouraged to develop the staging further. 

The weaving through of tikanga Māori is a little less overt than the Chinese traditions, in terms of depth and balance. Given the arrival of the coffins and their contents, for example, the soul-reaching call of the kai karanga would surely have initiated tangihanga which could definitely have added impact to the show and expanded the dynamic range. 

Reading the libretto, I find it difficult to hold back tears. However, as the intersection of the bones and the boy approach on stage, as the barrier between past and present lie within a shovel blow of oblivion, the opportunity for visceral engagement slips past my seat like a ghost still hungry. 


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council