Tagata Pasifika The Pacific voice on New Zealand television since 1987

Tahitian navigator Tupaia comes to life in new opera

By John Pulu

Captain Cook’s Tahitian navigator is the focus of a new NZ Opera called Ihitai ‘Avei‘a – Star Navigator. It tells the story of navigator and high priest Tupaia, who travelled with Captain James Cook on board the Endeavour during its maiden voyage in 1769.

The two master mariners were far from home and from vastly different worlds. Tupaia was guided by his ancestral knowledge and Captain Cook, a naval officer, was desperate to prove himself and his faith in science.

Award-winning tenor Amitai Pati (from acclaimed musical trio Sol3 Mio) plays the lead role of Tupaia.

“Tupaia is trying to, in some sort of way, navigate his way around the boat,” Amitai says .

“It’s kind of a clash of two different cultures; the fact that one uses modern sort of technology to navigate his way around the world and the other being very natural, he uses the stars as his form of navigation.

“They butt heads quite often, which is a great time because there is a difference in opinion and a difference in how they see the world.”

Amitai Pati plays the lead role of Tupaia. Photo: Tagata Pasifika
Amitai Pati plays the lead role of Tupaia. Photo: Tagata Pasifika

The opera is performed in English and Tahitian with music co-composed by Kiwi music icon Tim Finn, who has been busy working on it for the last seven years.

“I just became fascinated by the concentration of those two great minds within that very small space, you know, and it felt theatrical to me. So I took it from there and read some books, found out more about Tupaia and then went up to Tahiti a couple of times to visit the sacred marae of Taputapuatea and just really paid my respects and did my prayers out there, in a way, and really like asked permission in a funny sort of way, ” he says.

Tim has travelled twice with his family to Ra’iatea in Tahiti, which is the birthplace of Tupaia.

It wasn’t until 2018 that he teamed up with Tahitian novelist Célestine Hitiura Vaite to write the Tahitian monologues for the production.

Ms Vaite had been passionately researching ancient Tahiti for many years, and she hopes this story will set the record straight about her Tahitian ancestor and spark more interest in her history and culture.

“I am hoping to see people doing a thesis on Tupaia. It will spark interest, that’s for sure. I think the songs are making him even more human, and I am hoping to see more than what has already been told.”

Tim Finn and Celestine Hitiura Vaite Photo: Supplied
Tim Finn and Celestine Hitiura Vaite Photo: Supplied

The Polynesian opera is only showing in Auckland this weekend, and it’s already made a special connection with New Zealand/Māori soprano Natasha Wilson, who plays the other lead role of Purea.

“Purea was super important in Tupaia’s story. She was what grounded him in this story. She is what grounded him on the Endeavour and reminded him where he came from, and I think that like many wāhine, they are very important in a lot of males’ lives. So it’s really nice to celebrate that in this character.”

Proud Tahitian Ena Manuireva helped with the language translations and coached the performers. The Auckland-based academic is excited his native language is expressed in Aotearoa using opera.

“I think your preconceived ideas of opera is for western people, European people, but now, this one here, that’s the kind of message – to bring Pacific people, to bring Māori people, to bring all of us because there is a story to be told.”

Rehearsals of NZ Opera's Ihitai ‘Avei‘a - Star Navigator. Photo: Tagata Pasifika
Rehearsals of NZ Opera’s Ihitai ‘Avei‘a – Star Navigator. Photo: Tagata Pasifika

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