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Were the Dogs of the South Seas the Savages?

Fest 08: The Trial of the Cannibal_Dog

Were the Dogs of the South Seas the Savages?

Commemorating the dramatic twists and turns of New Zealand history, the New Zealand International Arts Festival has commissioned a contemporary operatic retelling of Dame Anne Salmond’s Montana Award-winning The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, which will make its debut in March 2008.

Salmond’s book details the remarkable story of Captain Cook’s voyages and is underpinned by a rich social account of the cultural collision between the 18th-century explorers and the indigenous people of the South Pacific.

Collaborators Matthew Suttor (composer), Christian Penny (director), and John Downie (librettist) will frame the cross-cultural dynamic with a mixture of operatic and non-operatic talent from Australasia.

Sponsored by the Friends of the Festival, this new work is set for four principal voices and includes a small cross-cultural chorus of six singers, a small chamber ensemble of string quintet, flute, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, trombone, percussion, and Taonga Purou. A chorus of seadogs and shoredogs are an integral part of the action throughout.

Singing the role of Captain Cook is Australian-born Bass-Baritone, Andrew Collis. He bagan his career at Cologne Opera studio and was a member of company for several years, while guesting at the main European houses. Hi extensive repertoire extends from the principal roles of Mozart and Puccini to the operas of Britten, Janacek and Zemlinsky. “Andrew Collis was in impressively resonant voice, bringing a sense of occasion to everything he sang” The West Australian

Multi-talented singer Janet Roddick takes the role of Cook’s wife Elizabeth left in lonely isolation in London during Cook’s extensive travels. Janet Roddick has a long association with the Festival having appeared in theatre, cabaret and now opera in almost every Festival since 1986

Anne Salmond’s Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas won the History Category and the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2004. It is a fresh and startling account of Cook's three voyages around the Pacific, in which Salmond explores the impact of contact on both Polynesian and European cultures.

A lecturer in composition, theory and music technology in the Department of Music at Yale University and Lecturer in Sound Design at the Yale School of Drama, NZ-born composer Matthew Suttor has been living in the United States since 1992. Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in New York City, he received a doctorate in composition from Columbia University in 1999. Suttor’s recent work explores interactive multimedia in a theatrical context. Recent commissions in 2007 include Syntagma, the first organ piece to be commissioned by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music from the Robert Baker Fund for New Sacred Music and TRANS/PROSE for baritone and chamber ensemble with text by Blaise Cendrars for the Beinecke Library at Yale.

British-born John Downie is a playwright, theatre and media director, with a particular interest in contemporary creative practices and cross-disciplinary thinking. His research interests include the history of spectacle and illusion, writing the performance script in the age of multi-media and interdisciplinary approaches, the relationship between biological 'display' and human 'performance', and practical theatre research as a means of investigating each of these. He is a senior lecturer in the Department of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

Director Christian Penny is recognised as one of this country’s boldest theatre directors. Of Tainui descent he has worked in theatre in New Zealand for over a decade. Committed to developing the art form, he pushes boundaries, creating a theatre unique to this land. His training emphasised the actor as writer and he has pursued a theatre that reflects this.

There will be three performances of The Trial of The Cannibal Dog between 2-5 March at 7.30pm at The Opera House.

Anne Salmond and the creative team will take part in an Art Talk on 3 March at the Pacific Blue Festival Club at 1.15pm.

Praise for Anne Salmond’s book, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog
"The Trial of the Cannibal Dog brings us the voyages of Captain James Cook as we've never seen them before. In Anne Salmond's hands, Pacific exploration becomes an intricate drama of mutual discovery, with Polynesians having as profound an impact on Europeans as Cook and his men had on those they encountered. Salmond's nuanced, multi-voiced book is a ground-breaking addition to the Captain Cook canon. "
Tony Horwitz

Praise for Matthew Suttor
“The lovely score, by Matthew Suttor, is one of the few elements that whispers insistently of the humanity that is elsewhere slighted.” New York Times

“Matthew Suttor's musical arrangements, which include tastes of ''La Vie en Rose'' and ''Arrivederci Roma,'' enrich the playfulness.” New York Times

Key Creatives
Composer – Matthew Suttor
Librettist – John Downie
Director -Christian Penny
Designer – Penny Fitt
Costume Designer – Kate Hawley
Music Director – Peter Scholes


Cannibal Dog Composer’s Statement

William Hodges’ painting ‘Captain James Cook of the Endeavour’ (National Maritime Museum, London), which appears in Anne’s book, and, for a time, hung at the Yale Center for British Art captures the great navigator in an unguarded moment. It is a rare informal portrait – pensive, wigless, his jacket unbuttoned, one senses from his oblique gaze all that has tested his endurance and forbearance. If I could bring this moment to life through a singing voice then that would be the achievement of this opera. We hear the Captain in this moment at the top of Act 3 in “Much Credit is Due”.

My relationship with Anne’s book is almost accidental. I was looking for holiday reading before a family Christmas trip to Cairns in 2003 and having just read a review of her book in the New Zealand Listener I thought The Trial of the Cannibal Dog sounded just the thing. Flying across the Tasman I was struck by the operatic scale of the story. This is hardly surprising as at the time I had just completed my first professional opera project, Don Juan in Prague, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni was bouncing around in my head. Out of Anne’s book stepped these fully-formed Mozartian roles, at least in my imagination: the grieving wife, the dilettante officer, the scheming queen, the rough crew, and, of course, our complicated captain. At the New Years Eve party at a local yacht club just outside of Cairns, perhaps because of the marine setting and too much “jollity”, the Cannibal Dog came alive again before my eyes through Cook’s celebrating ancestors. The reverberations of the Captain’s story are still resounding today and that palpable quality I found in Anne’s writing was the source of inspiration to write this opera. I wrote to Anne early in 2004. “Marvelous”, she said. And so I began to compose my first opera.

Although the actual formal composition of the opera did not start until February of 2007 when the first draft of the libretto was complete there were sketches done as far back as 2005. One such piece was setting of the Tauparapara in both English and Maori that Anne quotes and the end of her book. While the setting itself find a place in the opera material from the setting in the form of a Kokako birdsong I transcribed plays an important function throughout. Writing an opera I have discovered is like managing a good kitchen – nothing goes to waste.

In 2005 I received a development grant from Creative New Zealand enabling the creative team to workshop concepts for the opera. Soon after John Downie joined the project as librettist. In June 2006 workshop was held to work with Janet Roddick, our Wife. The aria “Husband, husband” was written overnight during the workshop and has not changed since!

In November 2006 we were invited to present work in progress to the New Zealand International Festival. By this stage Peter Scholes as joined the project as conductor as had singers Philip Rhodes and Mere Boyton. The Festival then sponsored a further workshop in July 2007 with full cast and ensemble, presenting Acts 1 & 2 to an invited audience at the Illot Theatre. From the beginning of the project I had always envisioned incorporating Taonga Puoro and Rangiiria Hedley joined the ensemble for that performance to add her special voice.

A further workshop in November that year was held to refine the libretto culminating in the first run of the opera. Rehearsals for this production began in late January 2008. I stopped composing soon after.

As a footnote to finish, Anne mentions in her book a pantomime called Omai or, A Trip round the World performed in Covent Garden in 1786 by William Shields the original overture of which is quoted in “Pretane is Island”.


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