Festival Fugues: Wrap up

Small Metal Objects. Photo / Matt Grace
Relict Furies composer Gareth Farr
Nixon in China
Black Tree Bridge
As the Spiegeltents, junkyard playgrounds and murals go back in their shipping containers, Renee Liang wraps up her coverage of the arts festivals in Auckland and Wellington.


My attempt to go hard for the final week at the festivals was slightly stymied by rain and children, both natural phenomena that act unpredictably. Still, I did manage to make it out to some events.

Small metal objects, at the NZ Festival, was cancelled by rain on the day I attended. A colleague went in glorious sunshine a few days later and reported that it was an innovative piece, very slickly done. The audience sit with individual headphones in an outdoor grandstand while four actors play out the drama of a drug deal gone wrong in the public areas around them. While the audience can listen in on the action, passers-by take on the role of unsuspecting extras – and sometimes interfere, unsuspecting, in the action (there’s latitude for improvisation.)  Two of the actors are people with disabilities and a questionnaire given out after the show asks if the show has changed perceptions of disabled people. My colleague’s answer? “I didn’t even notice. They were amazing!”

Relict Furies at the NZ Festival took me into the pastel vaults of the Wellington Cathedral for the first time.  The programme should really have been called “Relict Furies (and other orchestral delights)” - the main event being only 12 minutes long and the rest of the program being made up of pieces for string orchestra by Elgar, Sculthorpe and Vaughan Williams.  Relict Furies is a meditation on women’s grief during WWI, written by two sensitive men, composer Gareth Farr and librettist Paul Horan.

I’d never been inside this building before.  Despite the hard pews, it was quite warm and lovely, and the bouncing arches made the strings of the NZSO reverberate beautifully. Less kind was the effect of the echoing walls on soprano Margaret Medlyn’s clarity, but the published libretto helped and halfway through I realised I’d already been crying for some time.

Grief is universal. It reaches across centuries, through unfeeling stone walls, channelling through bodies and fingers and tremulous vocal chords to remind us of the day when we lost someone we loved. I sat there in that hall and my thoughts were not with the distant, unnamed women who had to go on living after war, but with the present. Lines like today/ I wear my wedding shoes/to your funeral,/They’re still tight/I won’t get far would leave their imprint on a person from any era.

Relict Furies composer Gareth Farr

Nixon in China, on the other hand, was more an analysis of power and the games people play than of the damage done by war. The NZ premiere of John Adams’ seminal contemporary opera, written 30 years ago, was a collaboration between NZ Opera, Auckland Arts Festival and the APO.  

In this semi-staged piece, director Sara Brodie bravely moved singers, chorus, extras (recruited from the local Chinese community) and even dancers up and down the steep steps of the Auckland Town Hall stage, weaving them perilously close to the conductor, using the aisles and even the mezzanine to turn our own tiny (by comparison) Great Hall into a Chinese Great Hall of the People. It was an ambitious piece done (rumour has it) on a shoestring budget, and the near-capacity audience revelled in it.

Sadly a last minute withdrawal of rights meant the libretto was unable to be supplied in the program, but we were given a tip on how to find it online. Even though the opera was in English and the enunciation of the singers crystal clear, Adams’ overlapping score made many of the words hard to catch. It seemed a pity to miss Alice Goodman’s insightful libretto, so there we were, speed reading ahead on our phones during the two brief intervals (embarrassingly, I got told off for continuing to read while the orchestra was warming up). However, without subtitles, I was able to focus on the music. I found it a beautifully complex work, a masterclass in how libretto and score can intermesh.

Nixon in China covers the five days in 1972 when US president Nixon visited China, a historical event that recognised the political ascendancy of China.  It’s the first opera I’ve been to where people don't die, there’s no blood and no one has to make any hard decisions on stage. The drama lies in the history and in the (imagined) interior dialogues of these powerful people, speaking in poetic rhetoric while seething underneath with the snakes of their own cultural prejudices.  The unsung words speak the loudest.

Despite the unequivocal talent on display, two elements rankled. One, the video display by Louise Potiki Bryant and others seemed unnecessarily intrusive in places.  Although it worked sometimes to set the scene (an evocative snowy Summer Palace was gorgeous), the juddering, freeze-frame digital manipulation seemed like it was from the wrong era. Sometimes it hit the wrong note entirely – I was left wondering if the imagery accompanying the famous revolutionary ballet scene (designed by Matt Gillanders) was deliberately referencing a mix of BDSM and Christian crucifixion, or whether it was just my twisted mind.

Secondly, I knew the casting of NZ heldentenor Simon O’Neill as Mao Zedong had raised eyebrows in the creative community, especially among Asian artists. I went with an open mind and really enjoyed his voice, but found myself continually distracted by the image of a white guy trying to look like a Chinese leader.  This wouldn’t have been so bad except that the role of Mao in this opera is to be iconic, almost symbolic. A wonderful showcase for a deserving NZ artist but with so many local and international artists on tap, surely the time for yellowface in this country has passed.  

Nixon in China

It’s too sad to watch the Spiegeltents and junkyard playgrounds, murals and fairy lights go back in their shipping containers. There are still a few residual shows and exhibitions to catch. Maybe I’ll be out again. But for now I’m left thinking about what worked for me, and what didn’t.

Once again, the big arts festivals have been a feast, especially for this hungry writer.  In a day I can wander the world and travel through time (yes clichés really are that transporting).  It’s a privilege to have the world brought to our door, and my only regret is, as always, not being able to experience more of it. One special highlight was the Raw works-in-progress showings at the Auckland Arts Festival. It was heartening to see enthusiastic, knowledgeable audiences for the readings of Tea by Ahi Karunaharan and Black Tree Bridge by Chye-Ling Huang, and get a glimpse of what’s on the horizon for NZ theatre.

RAW: Black Tree Bridge

Things which didn’t work for me this year: generally, it’s hard to access work with very young children in tow.  Each festival does program ‘family friendly’ events, but the under-five age group is hard to cater for – I understand. Some of the events advertised as being for children start too late (my kids stay up later than most, but an 8.30 start time is still beyond them). For others, such as the AAF’s Family Day, travel, organisation and parking proved to be too hard. But children grow and I’ll try again next year.

Information was also sometimes patchy. Some things were easy to find, others less so. Individual artistic happenings – such as the murals being painted around the Auckland Festival Garden and the interactive digital ‘game’ Blockwith – could have done with a bit more signage, instructions, or direction to an online portal with more information. With programs and information being hosted more and more on digital platforms, some teething issues are inevitable. Of course the human interface- the volunteers and staff – are still indispensable and I saw the same smiling faces night after night. Big ups for their endurance and unfailing professionalism.

Despite good intentions, I mostly didn’t make it beyond the central venues of both festivals.  But both festivals do make an effort to reach out beyond the usual artsy stomping grounds and to new audiences and venues. Pricing, too, is often quietly adjusted to make shows accessible to certain audiences. These include artists, and with an artist card, I found the pricing of many shows much more palatable. (Get on their mailing list to know when to apply for an artist card for next time).

Arts festivals also extend their footprint out timewise. I know that many of the shows debuting at the festivals, both NZ made and international, will go on to tour. I’ve already made mental notes to catch those I know will have lives beyond the Festivals. So there’s no need to have festival withdrawal after all. See you in the next foyer.

Written by

Renee Liang

22 Mar 2016

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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