The triumphant tour of Inia Te Wiata through New Zealand is in its last stages. The Maori people, proud of their new world celebrity, flocked to his concerts and although the arias in the first half of his programme were strange to many, all could appreciate his superb versions of the West Indian songs, the Negro spirituals, many short popular numbers—and of course the Maori items performed at each of his concerts.
There was little in Inia Te Wiata's early background to lead him to world fame or the life of a professional artist. His father, Watene Te Wiata, died early, after which Inia was brought up by Pairoroku and Rakete Rikihana in Otaki. He went to live in the Waikato. Here he became interested in Maori carving and was employed at Ngaruawahia for three years on the carving of Turongo, the house of the Maori King, which was opened in 1936. Afterwards, he worked at the Horotiu Freezing Works, near Hamilton.
During all these years, although his musical talents remained undeveloped, singing was an important part of his life. He first performed on the stage at the age of seven. ‘This first concert’ says Te Wiata, ‘still stands out as one of the great days in my life’.
The concert took place at the Old Otaki Lyric Theatre, which was situated about a hundred yards from the Telegraph Hotel, in the direction of the town.
His music teacher, Miss Edith Miller taught
him at the Otaki State School and it was from her that he received his first music lessons. He remembers that the song he sang was “Margie” and that when the audience acclaimed him he was very mystified and did not know what to do next. His teacher told him to return to the stage and take a how, but he was still not sure about what was expected of him, so he sang “Margie” again. Again the clapping came and with a quick look at the pianist he started up and again sang “Margie”. It was here that he began to understand the meaning of being an artist and he began to enjoy it immensely. He had to be carried off the stage before he was tempted to again sing “Margie”.
At the age of 13 ½ his voice broke and almost overnight he became a bass-baritone. When this happened he joined his cousins quartette which included Wi Nicholls, Henry Tahiwi, and Dan Rikihana. All these people were adults except the young Te Wiata.
Another person who took an interest in him during those early years was the late Mrs Newton Taylor (Mihi), a member of the Rikihana family.
She trained Te Wiata and his cousin to sing duets together; insisting on a high standard of performance despite the protests of the lads who were more interested in being boys not singers. Inia remembers Mrs Taylor with gratitude and affection for this early training she instilled in him at this time. He has discovered that it is this extra effort and concentration which she tried to teach them which is the making of a great artist. There is no halfway for the professional. These duets which included La Paloma were sung at Concerts and smoke concerts and other social occasions and he often sang on his own throughout his teen years.
While he was at Ngaruawahia, he continued public singing. He was a very active member of the Waiata Maori Choir. This Choir, which was organised by the Superintendent of the Methodist Maori Mission, Rev. J. J. Seamer, toured all over New Zealand and also visited Australia and Great Britain. At this time Inia Te Wiata was busy on the carving of the King's house so he could not leave the country. While the choir had a successful 14 months tour of Britain, he stayed in Ngaruawahia.
From time to time he sang for the radio station 1ZB, specializing in Maori songs with his own guitar accompaniments.
Later on he met Mr Grant of Hamilton who had had close contact with the famous contralto Clara Butt. In Inia he saw the makings of a great artist and hoped that his experience in management would help the young singer on his way to success. They arranged concerts in different parts of the country and eventually caught the interest of the Mayor of Hamilton, Mr H. D. Caro. Through this contact a group of well-known people became interested in furthering Inia's studies. Among these was Dame H. Ida Ross, Sir Joseph Hannan, Stewart Garland and the conductor Anderson Tyrer. A professional opinion of Inia's voice was acquired from the famous Australian singer Peter Dawson. This was very favourable and Anderson Tyrer was put in charge of the arrangements for study overseas.
A fund was raised to which both Maori and European friends subscribed. Through the late Mr Peter Fraser, and the Hon H. G. R. Mason, a Government grant was added to this. Enough was collected to send him to England for the three years which were necessary for success as a singer.
Te Wiata had always dreamed of studying under Garcia, who was the teacher of that other great New Zealand bass Oscar Natzke. This dream was not to be fulfilled as Garcia died just before Inia reached England. Upon reaching England he enrolled as a student at the Trinity College of Music and took private lessons from James Kennedy Scott. As well he took daily lessons at the Berlitz School of Languages, studying German, Italian and French. He remembers this period as the most difficult period of his life. Each day he took a separate language which meant that he became so mixed up that he could not absorb any of them. Eventually he decided to concentrate on German, until he had mastered it a little and attempted Italian later. He gave up French altogether, largely because his voice was not really suited to the French type of song.
At Trinity College he took counterpoint and theory and so forth but was disappointed to find that his great interest in opera was not catered for. There was no opera class. Some of the students worked together by themselves on operas but he felt that this was not a good grounding for the real thing. He also sensed that the voice production which he received from his teacher was not improving his voice, in fact it was going back. So he decided to put his cards on the table and ask the advice of his teacher. He was received very sympathetically by Kennedy Scott and they parted the best of friends.
He then joined the Opera Company run by the great English soprano Joan Cross. The students paid about £80 a term in fees and operas were performed in the provinces by the students themselves and produced by Joan Cross. This was wonderful experience. It was in the Tothams Theatre in Devon that Te Wiata performed the part of Sir Astra from the Magic Flute. The Tothams Theatre had a romantic history as it was built by the son of the great writer Chekov. This performance was such a success that it was repeated nine times in Devon, and then in other towns. The end of the three year term sponsored by the N.Z. Government was near when Peter Fraser visited England. Te Wiata
took his opportunity to apply for a further year in which to continue his experience with the opera company. This was granted.
Towards the end of this year Te Wiata began to see that it was time he thought of striking out on his own. Against the advice of all he decided to try an audition at Covent Garden. This was an adventurous step as it was not easy to be engaged once an audition had failed. One can imagine the singer's feelings as he stood on the stage and looked into the empty theatre where somewhere in the darkness sat the judges.
Amongst the ten singers who were being auditioned there was an American called Anthony Marlow who also became well-known as an opera singer. He was the only one to ignore the custom to render two songs for the audition, so Te Wiata decided to follow his lead and when his turn came he sang arias one after the other until he was asked to stop. His performance was followed by the usual “we shall advise you by post how your audition was received”; when a very high masculine voice rose from the darkness of the empty theatre to enquire if he knew the part of the Speaker in “The Magic Flute”. He didn't but he said Yes very promptly. The voice told him to come for a rehearsal the next day to prepare for a performance at Covent Garden the following night. Te Wiata spent the whole night learning the part and sang it perfectly on the night of the performance. Among the principal singers in that performance was the Australian soprano Rosina Raysbeck whom New Zealanders will remember from the very successful concerts she gave here just before she went to England. Others in the cast were the famous English tenor Peter Peers and the polish singer Marion Nowkski.
SUCCESS WAS RAPID
This was the beginning of his career as a world performer and he was to take parts in such operas as The Marriage of Figaro, La Boheme, Billy Budd and Gloriana, parts for the last two being specially written for him, by Benjamin Britten. For those familiar with the music of this composer it will be realised what a great achievement this was. At Covent Garden he was to sing under the baton of great conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham and others. He sang before the Queen on three separate occasions, one of which was at a concert in the Festival Hall given in honour of the Queen before she left for the Commonwealth tour. Once his reputation was established he began to have invitations to perform on television and in the films. He played the lead in three films including the J. Arthur Rank production of “The Seekers”. In television films he took parts in the Agi series and the Saba series. Recently he played the part of a Maori in the play “In the Wake of the Long White Cloud”. This was written by a New Zealander named Bruce Stewart and is all about New Zealand. His talks on television to children are mostly about Maori culture and Maori clothing and weapons. When he returns to England he will take part in the musical “The Most Happy Fella”. This was written by the same author as “Guys and Dolls” but so far there has been no film version of this production.
These are the highlights of Te Wiata's life since he left these shores some eleven years ago but the isolation of New Zealand makes it difficult for us to realize what is needed in performance and tenacity to reach the heights which he reached, in a highly competitive field in a world class. Inia Te Wiata has developed his talents as a singer and an actor to a remarkable degree and only he will know the self-sacrifice and hard work which is the background of his success. His talent as a musician is of an unusual kind—he loves a ‘spicy programme’ moving from classical arias to simple folk music from the serious to the comic. For every song and almost every phrase he has a different mood and voice. Even old favourites like ‘Ole Man River’ and ‘The Song of the Flea’ are brought to life by unexpected but very apt voice modulations and mimicry. The gramophone records give no idea of what the performance is like, as so much acting comes into it. Every word and idea comes out with perfect clarity. His enormous presonality portrays the character of the songs, yet he never intrudes himself as a person. This is probably the test of any great artist and the most difficult achievement.
Unfortunately it is impossible for Inia Te Wiata to stay in New Zealand. There are no opportunities for him here. He has drawn out his tour as long as he could, spending some time in his home town Otaki where there is still a building site specially kept open for him when he wishes to make his home there.
Meanwhile, haere ra, Inia.