In 1902 the ship SS Ventnor left Wellington to carry the remains of hundreds of miners back to their native China. It never made it, colliding with a rock and eventually sinking near Hokianga Harbour in Northland. The loss of these remains was a source of absolute heartbreak for the New Zealand Chinese community as, without returning home to their families, the spirits of the deceased could never truly rest, becoming eternally restless and hungry ghosts. It was rumoured that many of the remains had washed ashore and been buried by the local Māori tribes. In this newly commissioned opera for the Auckland Arts Festival a young Chinese New Zealander travels to Northland to search for the bones of his ancestor that were lost in this tragedy. With an alternately poignant, mysterious and chuckle-inducing libretto penned by playwright Renee Liang (author of the source play) and music by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr, The Bone Feeder is a thought-provoking deliberation on the history, culture and the nature of belonging.

Jaewoo Kim (Kwan) and company © Candice Whitmore
Jaewoo Kim (Kwan) and company
© Candice Whitmore

The narrative bridges the worlds of the living and the dead with Ben and his long-dead ancestor Kwan both appearing as singing characters. Ben is guided to the resting places of the dead by a Māori ferryman who seems to have one foot planted in each world. As Ben searches for his Kwan's bones we hear from the dead man's spirit his conflicted feelings over where he himself belongs: with his own ancestors and love left behind in China or with his home in New Zealand and the woman he met there. Ben initially tries to dig up the bones he finds but in so doing displeases the spirits. The piece ends with him performing the “Bai san” ceremony to feed the bones and put the soul of his ancestor to rest.

The small ensemble included guzheng (a large plucked string instrument), erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and dizi (transverse flute) alongside taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments), violin, cello and marimba. Farr’s score is quietly effective in its spare scoring with this combination of Western, Māori and Chinese instruments, a musical parallel to the cultural conflicts and interactions represented in the narrative. For example, he sudden emergence of guzheng plucking over the haunting Māori woodwind was suitably confrontational and disorienting enough to suggest that we were entering a world in which cultures by necessity sit uneasily alongside one another. If anything was missing it was more than a fleeting sense of the composer's individual voice. Farr has immersed himself in traditional Māori and Chinese music to such an extent that his trademark sense for unusual rhythm seems to have taken a backseat.

Henry Choo (Ben) and Te Oti Rakena (The Ferryman) © Candice Whitmore
Henry Choo (Ben) and Te Oti Rakena (The Ferryman)
© Candice Whitmore

Set to English, Māori and Cantonese texts, vocal writing was mostly of the gently lyrical type, occasionally rising to more impassioned statements with vocal lines often doubled by the string instruments. The most striking musical moments generally featured the female vocal ensemble, acting variously as general commentators, spirits of the lost miners’ loved ones in China, and representatives of the tribes who had taken on the guardianship of the lost spirits. Each role they took had its own unique texture, whether droning hypnotically in Cantonese or howling like a demented ghoulish set of Flowermaidens. There was also a rather lovely duet for Ben and Kwan as the former searched. Set design and direction were mostly of the minimalist type with the plot's limited action though the contributions of Kwan's comic spirit friends didn’t need to be played as such obvious slapstick – the libretto is funny enough to do without that.

The singers and musicians showed utmost commitment to the work musically and dramatically. Jaewoo Kim’s full-bodied tenor was put to expressive use in Kwan’s melancholic reflections on life and death and as his descendent, Henry Choo was vocally superb and had a suitably confused stage presence. The Ferryman was vividly communicated, if a little gruffly sung, by Te Oti Rakena. Peter Scholes was the sympathetic conductor. Among the instrumentalists, a wide range of taonga pūoro were handled with great mastery by James Webster. Perhaps most impressively, dizi player Julian Renlong Wang doubled as a dancer, portraying a cicada with mesmerisingly flowing movements, even dancing while simultaneous playing the dizi.

Jaewoo Kim (Kwan) and company © Candice Whitmore
Jaewoo Kim (Kwan) and company
© Candice Whitmore

The Bone Feeder tells an important story from New Zealand’s history but also holds strong resonance for the modern day with the recurring debates around migration. It shrewdly examines simultaneously what it meant to be a new migrant for the Chinese miners newly moved to New Zealand and what it means for their descendants to be Chinese New Zealanders, in the words of Liang “torn between cultures, unsure of language, tradition, even who to love or trust.” Conceptually and dramatically, it was both moving and thought-provoking and the performance itself was hugely impressive but the itself, while often beautiful and haunting, score just lacked something in individuality and memorability.