Speech at NZ Opera's Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator

Tēnā koutou katoa, Ia orana, Fa’atalofa atu, Mālō e lelei, Tālofa ni, Kia orāna, Fakaalofa atu, Ni sa bula Vinaka, Tālofa, Noa'ia and warm Pacifc greetings to you all.

Two years ago, New Zealand marked the 250th anniversary of the first onshore meetings between Māori and Europeans, during the 1769 maiden voyage of the HMS Endeavour.

I think it’s fair to say that there was a level of nervousness in the lead up to the Tuia 250 commemorations.  Concerns that perhaps an acknowledgement of that 250 years would again negate or ignore the incredible feats of the Pacific voyagers who travelled across Te Moananui-a-Kiwa to settle in New Zealand many centuries ago.

But instead the commemorations were designed in such a way that we could give air to stories that had not often been told. Conversations were sparked that enabled a deeper understanding of our shared histories.

I am delighted those conversations continue tonight with Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator, a production which explores Pacific navigation and the coming together of peoples from different countries and cultures.

Tupaia, the Tahitian tahua and star navigator who sailed with Lieutenant James Cook on the Endeavour in 1769, is an important figure in Aotearoa’s history.

He played a pivotal role in translating and mediating between Māori communities and the crew of the Endeavour during their first visit to New Zealand.

It is testament to how very different history can look from different perspectives, that the Endeavour was remembered by Māori as ‘Tupaia’s ship’. Yet until recently, Tupaia’s role, and even his existence on the Endeavour, were not emphasised, and many New Zealanders may have gone through school without hearing of him.

So it is very pleasing to see Tupaia’s story explored through the powerful medium of opera.

This work brings together two brilliant artists from different walks of creative life – Te Awamutu-born singer Tim Finn, and Tahitian-born writer Célestine Hitiura Vaite.

It features much-loved opera singers Amitai Pati, Paul Whelan and upcoming star Natasha Wilson; Norah Stevenson-Tuuga, performing the Purea’s monologues;
the Manukau Symphony Orchestra; Auckland Choral; and the Graduate Choir New Zealand.

I’m excited to witness the magic of all these artists coming together – which of course is one of the beautiful things about opera as an artform.

Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator is about a journey, but behind the scenes, NZ Opera is on a journey too – a journey to re-imagine opera within the Aotearoa New Zealand context.  How proud I am as a Pacific New Zealander to see the recognition of our pacific uniqueness and our stories, in opera.

On this note, I wish to acknowledge the operatic trailblazers that have come before.  Not least of which was the pioneering Samoan Born, NZ opera singer, the late Iosefa Enari.  His accomplishments were many but the one I will refer to tonight is his role as artistic director for Classical Polynesia, the first NZ opera that combined traditional samoan language and stories with classical opera. 

I’ve been told by his name sake, my friend Iosefa Enari who is with me here tonight that he would be proud of the way NZ Opera is pushing the boundaries of operatic tradition – and taking it in a direction only a New Zealand company could. It is unique and it is to be commended.

Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator shows what riches this journey of diversification and pride of place and our unique history can add to the repertoire offered by NZ opera.

It shows, too, how an artistic collaboration – in this case, an intergenerational, cross-genre and cross-cultural collaboration – can open up conversations important to all New Zealanders.

My congratulations to Tim and Célestine, the cast, the musicians and the creative team. Thank you also to NZ Opera and its supporters and collaborators, including the West Australian Opera, Victorian Opera and Auckland Arts Festival.

After the disruption and uncertainty of 2020, I am delighted – and privileged – to be here with a live audience to see such an exciting concert, and I look forward to what is sure to be a memorable opening night.