NZ Arts Festival 2008, The Opera House
March 2-5 | Reviewed by Raphael Matto

I’LL START by saying that I’ve never been to The Opera before.

Though I’ll avoid talking about Opera itself, which baffles me in a warm fuzzy kind of way, I will pass on this advice for first-timers: dress in layers, bring a paper fan (it’s gets hot!), buy a program – or at least steal a program from your neighbor while she’s peeing at halftime – and read the synopsis. Finally, listen closely to veteran opera-goers (those are the guys who come by themselves). You can parrot them when your friends ask, “So what was it about?”

On the surface: The Trial of the Cannibal Dog is about Captain James Cook’s nautical adventures while charting Pacific coasts and islands during the 18th century. He and his sea-dog shipmates clash with a cannibalistic society, and bloody mayhem ensues.

More to the point: I liked The Trial of the Cannibal Dog. Without knowing much about contemporary music, I’d say it sounded like Philip Glass. Music aside, this opera is a catastrophic clusterfuck of metaphor, symbolism, and nonlinear storytelling, especially in the third and fourth acts. Present day leaks into historical past until they exist simultaneously. Men are dogs, women and nature are birds, vaginas are red (bloody?) bird’s nests, hospital beds are boats, hearts are traded across the radial divide, guns are oars, blood covered surgeons perform operations with rifles, 18th century ship captains are reincarnated as modern-day MDs while tribeswomen become their low paid assistants and bloody body parts in Wellington city council recycling bags are tossed onto an enormous trash heap at the back of the stage. What starts out as a straightforward historical dramatization deteriorates into a psychedelic moralizing rabbit’s hole in which human nature is to blame for our expulsion from paradise: “A pair of breeding animals is all you need to start a civilization.” For me, apotheosis presents itself when a Maori ghost feverishly recounts his own death; he rapes a giant bird on the beach while being torn apart by wild dogs, then enters the bird’s body through its feathery vagina and is spiritually reborn out of her mouth as song.

The central metaphor is: men are dogs. They are dogs in the “scurvy-dog” sense of the word, but also physically dogs; the male actors have fleshy appendages dangling from their ears, are bald and bare-chested, and sniff around the stage. Their tails wag at us from nude heinies as they enthusiastically pollinate the woman of Tahiti. Somehow, this dog metaphor is meant to explain why men cannibalize each other – why they literally eat each other, but also why they cannibalize the culture and natural resources of a foreign people and their land.

The curtains open on another curtain, designed by Penny Fitt – a kind of shredded sail that serves as a projection screen for multimedia intrusions, is the entrance/exit route for actors, provides a backstage onstage, and keeps folks off their toes by constantly tripping them. It’s oriented diagonally down towards the audience, which shrinks the amount of onstage floor space. Mostly, it's meant to represent a ship’s sail: when folks emerge high up in the curtain, they are on a ship, and when they emerge below, they are on land. Conceptually cool, but visually and spatially dominating, it restricted movement in general; actors seemed stuck in a giant spiderweb and appeared tiny against its simple square shape, especially when sharing the curtain with large projected images.

Perched atop a crow’s nest, Andrew Collis announces he’s our Captain Cook. Full of proud ambition and the 18th century explorer’s eurocentrism, he conducts the rape of various pacific islands (Tahiti, New Zealand, and Hawaii), moralizing and advising: “Without their voluntary consent, we could never be the aggressors,” and while guns are distributed: “There are many ways to convince them of our English superiority.” Yes, this is the white guy that we’re invited to hate, but ultimately have sympathy for; sort of like a cannibal Ebenezer, the Captain is haunted in sickness and old age by the ghost of pillage past, encouraging him to admit his crimes, or at least acknowledge that he, too, is a savage cannibal and should take up his bloody bowl and feed on foreign friends, face first, without shamefaced contrition. His musical theme is the most complex (though least appealing), with all sorts of curious whizzing gizmo percussion following his internal dialogues.

Janet Roddick laments from faraway London, and communicates the poignant suffering of the seafarer's wife. Though we never meet her children, they die frequently, with names like Jon, comically piling up as her chaste years unfold. Her lullabies to herself (or perhaps song-letters to her husband) are plaintive and lyrically beautiful: “In your absence, husband, you are older than me.” And then later, “More than fifty years I sat with just a songbird in a cage... Husband, what song did it sing?” Though the central visual theme in “The Trial of the Cannibal Dog” is canine in nature, Roddick’s character becomes a songbird early on, and jump starts the theme of dog-kills-bird. Her dog husband barely acknowledges her existence. He says, “In marriage, husband and wife are the same person, and that person is the husband.” Roddick’s sincere performance gives the Wife's suffering a believable sadness – she is a submissive casualty of the mariner’s life, bolstered by alcohol and nostalgia.

Deborah Wai Kapohe has the most fun as the Queen of Tahiti. Underestimated, plotting, spoiled, greedy – she gets to ham it up, pushing her voice to its theatre-filling limit. She wants. She gets. Guys watch out. Early on, her ambitions seem longsighted: “I want your white canoe.” But she quickly becomes a peripheral non-threat, always present but queerly uninvolved. In London, she's handed a bible and told, “Take this book to [the Chief’s] island with gunpowder.” She grabs the book and grins, eager to please.

The Queen’s costumes are exquisitely imagined. She is not a dog. Like the Captain’s wife, she is a bird, with fluttering musical accompaniment. We meet her beneath a headdress of black peacock feathers, striking even from a row M seat – especially striking as she navigates a starry night from the crows nest. Later, she visits Pocahontas's London, claiming her celebrity with gusto. She is a savage Paris Hilton, primed for the red carpet, sporting what I might call a bone gown – gaudy, but with clear tribal influence, fringed with feathers. Later, she dons an enormous bird-skull-hat, gloves with long feathers that curl gently off her fingers, and conjures a pterodactyl-like profile. I for one appreciated the Queen’s costume design by Kate Hawley and wished I had a closer seat to see the details.

Phillip Rhodes makes less of an impression as the victimised Chief, but plays a central roll in delivering the opera’s message, which is the master of all whodunit clichés: the white man – in fact, this white man: Captain Cook – is responsible for all the cultural, environmental, and species devastation in the world: “Did you think that once you set your course so many wouldn’t catch your scent and follow it? ...Ice is melting pole to pole... There are no more turtles, swordfish, dolphins, seals, sharks.” Worse than presenting clichés as revelatory, the opera sums itself up and offers this advice to people of aboriginal descent: “Don’t think that who you were then is who you are now,” and this advice to generally everyone: “Now we're in the business of putting it all back together,” echoing Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s recent apology. But the opera does also acknowledge the ongoing racial class divide, and loss of aboriginal culture. The white doctor, who is Cook reborn (you can’t really ever kill the white man), tells the sick reincarnation of the Chief, “Try half days to begin with. I’ll see you at the first tee in just a few months.”

The seadogs and shoredogs steal the show with their lusty hostility and sinful merrymaking. My favorite moment in the opera was the short song one of the female Maori shoredogs sings when the Captain reaches New Zealand.

The Opera House has a slick three screen subtitle projection system. Bring long distance reading glasses if you'd like to follow every word (especially for characters who speak with an italic accent). Though, honestly, I would recommend giving up reading at the very beginning. The actors sing in English, and sometimes repeat themselves twenty or thirty times. At one point the Queen, the Captain, and the Scientific Gentleman all sing at once, overloading the screens in a tour de force that will frustrate any eagle-eyed speed reader (think Dolby Ads, or try watching three television shows simultaneously).

I didn’t actually know The Trial of the Cannibal Dog was an opera; suspiciously, many audience members seemed similarly unaware. I left wondering if significant numbers of people who attend operas do so accidentally. ...Right. So it was a cultural experience for me. Not necessarily cross-cultural... more like up-cultural; the bits of wet ticket I fish from my laundered jean pockets usually say $12 on them, not $61.