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Features/Music

Navigating opera by the stars

11 March 2020

Tim Finn talks to Ara Jansen about swimming, music and his opera Star Navigator, which will be premiered by WA Opera this month.

Tim Finn is fresh from his morning swim, which he calls a daily solace. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that when he tackled one of the more challenging projects of his career, it was linked to one of his favourite things – water.

For Finn going to a nice swimming pool is like going to a temple. He loves the water and doing laps. He loves the chance to let the mind and body connect or simply fall away as he chases the black line.

The swimming pool near his home in the Auckland bayside village of Devenport, was also the place where he did some of the contemplating for his latest project, his first opera, called Star Navigator.

After six years of work, Star Navigator premiers this month in Perth, commissioned by the West Australian Opera, New Zealand Opera and Victorian Opera.

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Based on true events, Star Navigator tells the tale of Tupaia, a Tahitian star navigator who sailed the oceans with British explorer and cartographer Captain James Cook on the Endeavour after the master mariners met in 1770. The two men come from two different worlds and cultures and the opera charts a journey to understanding through their differences and a shared love of the sea.

“Imagine these two on one ship!” Finn says. “They are both geniuses and find themselves in each other’s worlds as they’re exploring new worlds.”

There’s no question that 67-year-old Finn has a long history in music dating back to his first band Split Enz, a foray into his brother Neil’s band Crowded House and later an album with him plus a successful solo career. A bit like Cold Chisel, he’s part of our musical DNA and while Finn may be a Kiwi at heart, he’s certainly an adopted Aussie.

Opera might feel a long way from the world of rock and pop, but in many ways Finn has worked up to it with other musical projects including a one-man show observing heritage and culture called White Cloud, The Fiery Maze, based on a collaboration with the late poet Dorothy Porter and the musical Ladies in Black.

Tongan tenor Ta’u Pupu’a will sing the role of Tupaia, the Tahitian star navigator, in Tim Finn’s opera.

Equally, Finn says putting himself in characters’ shoes and their heads is nothing strange. He’s been “doing it since Split Enz”, not only with the music but with everything from crazy suits to haircuts and make-up.

“The style of singing in opera is very stylized and it’s a whole different type of technical,” explains Finn. “Equally it’s amazing how you can get totally drawn into a story, even if you don’t understand the language. I did need help for this project, from numerous people, and the result is what is called a number opera.”

That’s what makes it possible to present Star Navigator in its debut as a staged concert with international soloists James Clayton and Ta’u Pupu’a alongside the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, WASO chorus, Finn on piano and select Tahitian instruments.

West Australian Opera’s artistic director Chris van Tuinen says bringing Star Navigator to the stage is part of the fresh, collaborative programming he’s keen to foster.  

“Opera is a very broad church,” he says.

“Most of the cultures around the world have opera and if we want to tell stories from our region, like the meeting between Cook and Tupaia in Tahiti, you go to the modern composers. One of them is Tim Finn.”

“You need someone who has an interesting voice to find a story which excites and inspires them enough to want to write about it. It’s one of the things opera can do best – take great moments in time and great relationships and represent them. Tim is writing the music in his own way and expressing himself in his own musical language. While different, it sounds like Tim Finn to me.

“We often joke that opera is not about everyday domestic situations because the emotions and the situations need to be strong enough to make people need to sing.”

Star Navigator has been cancelled.

Pictured top: Tim Finn working with the team behind Star Navigator. Photo by Sean Finney.

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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