Story: Te Wiata, Inia Morehu Tauhia Watene Iarahi Waihurihia

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Te Wiata, Inia Morehu Tauhia Watene Iarahi Waihurihia


Ngati Raukawa; singer, carver, artist

This biography, written by Beryl Te Wiata, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Inia Morehu Tauhia Watene Iarahi Waihurihia Te Wiata (originally Te Iwiata) was born in Otaki on 10 June 1915 to Watene Te Wiata and his wife, Constance Helena Johnson, also known as Kone (Connie) Papi Nikora. His father was of Maori–Scots descent with affiliations to Ngati Raukawa; his mother was of Swedish descent. After Watene Te Wiata died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Inia’s mother had a struggle to make ends meet by taking in washing, cleaning offices and doing housework. When Inia was eight she married Paneta Te Waaka Naihi, also known as Barnet Waaka. Inia was then sent to live with Rakate and Pairoroku Rikihana, relations of his father.

They were market gardeners and before and after school Inia had to pick vegetables, milk cows, do household chores and collect and chop driftwood from the beach. Mihi, the Rikihanas’ daughter, brought the children up, and took a strong interest in teaching music to her charges. Inia attended Otaki primary school and Otaki Native College. Pairoroku was well-versed in Maoritanga, and noting Inia’s keen interest in the subject singled him out as worthy of learning whakapapa. Inia had grown up speaking Maori, but at primary school was to learn and speak in English only.

Inia became a basso profundo when he was 14, and was allowed to join a popular trio made up of Mihi’s brother Dan, Wi Nicholls and Henry Tahiwi. He was known as ‘Happy’ from around this time. In 1932 the deep, powerful voice Inia had displayed in the Rangiatea Church choir was noticed by the Reverend A. J. Seamer, who had formed a Methodist Maori Mission choir. Seamer engaged Inia as a soloist and choir member, and for 18 months they travelled all over New Zealand. The group tour proved so popular that they toured Australia, then travelled for a further 18 months.

Te Wiata by this time was earning admiration not only for his singing but for his ability in drawing and carving. There had been no one to teach him the latter but at primary school he studied photographs of Maori meeting houses and managed to copy the carvings. Later, when the Methodist mission choir included demonstrations of fighting with taiaha in their concerts, the weapons were frequently broken and fine replacements were carved by Inia.

He was approaching 20 when Seamer suggested to the elders of Ngati Raukawa that he should be sent to Turangawaewae to develop his knowledge of carving. Te Puea Herangi saw great potential in Te Wiata and assigned her head carver, Piri Poutapu, to teach him while she increased his knowledge of Maoritanga. She arranged for Poutapu to take him to the Wellington and Auckland museums to study the finest examples of Maori art. Poutapu proclaimed him to be the best pupil he ever had.

In 1937 Seamer arrived at Ngaruawahia to announce that the mission choir was to tour England and he wanted Te Wiata as his soloist. He had already been chosen as a carver for King Koroki’s residence, Turongo, and decided he had an obligation to his tribe to remain and carve. On 7 June 1939, at Ngaruawahia, he married Rose Evelyn Friar, known as Ivy, a young relative of Te Puea’s; they had six children.

Te Wiata worked at the Horotiu freezing works and on local farms. One farmer was so impressed when he heard Inia singing that he arranged for his brother, who taught voice production, to hear him; free lessons were immediately arranged. Inia (sometimes calling himself Happy Davidson) sang to entertain troops and at smoke concerts. An Aucklander, Jack Grant, attended one of the concerts in Te Kuiti and was so astounded at the quality of Te Wiata’s voice and his stage presence that he directed him to a singing teacher in Hamilton, James Patrick Lonergan, himself a fine bass. He was an excellent teacher, but lessons were unusual. There was no piano and Te Wiata could not read music. Ballads and Maori songs were all he learnt, but Lonergan nurtured the natural rich quality of the exceptional voice. The mayor of Hamilton, Harold Caro, impressed with Te Wiata’s voice and demeanour, commenced fund-raising to support his family should a scholarship be granted for overseas study. Te Wiata continued singing in small town concerts and entered competitions, winning first prize every time. A government scholarship was eventually arranged, and on 17 April 1947 Te Wiata sailed for London, leaving his family in New Zealand.

Te Wiata studied at the Trinity College of Music. Unfortunately, the college almost exclusively trained teachers, not singers. The natural quality which Lonergan had nurtured was almost destroyed by the allotted tutor, while Te Wiata struggled with learning harmony, German and Italian. He nevertheless mastered all of the subjects.

A fortunate meeting with Steuart Wilson of the BBC resulted in Te Wiata’s training being transferred to Joan Cross’s Opera School; Wilson himself took on the role of voice tutor in order to correct what had been going wrong at Trinity College. Te Wiata proved to be a natural actor and in 1950 he auditioned successfully at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he was to sing with an orchestra for the first time. He had to work hard as he had no repertoire, having sung only excerpts from operas at the school. His first role was as the Speaker in The magic flute in January 1951. During that year he performed in The marriage of Figaro , Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The pilgrim’s progress , and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd .

During his first year at the Royal Opera House, Te Wiata was asked to create a Maori ‘coat of arms’ for an altar frontal for Rangiatea Church to replace the one presented by Queen Victoria. It was worked by the Royal School of Needlework and his design placed the royal coat of arms in the centre with the New Zealand one on the left and the Maori motif on the right.

During breaks in the Opera House contract, Te Wiata established a reputation in solo recitals. In June 1953, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Britten’s opera Gloriana was performed at Covent Garden; Te Wiata sang a role Britten had written for him. When the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was formed in 1953, the company was invited to perform Gloriana and other operas in Bulawayo. The Royal Opera House authorities insisted that, in spite of his race, he should be treated in the same way as other members of the cast and declined his own request to be replaced.

Later that year, Te Wiata decided not to renew his contract as a principal singer at Covent Garden. Instead, he freelanced and began performing in musicals and appearing in films, radio plays and in television acting and singing roles. He continued to be booked as a guest artist at the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells right up to his death in 1971.

Te Wiata’s first marriage was dissolved in 1959 and on 24 October he and Beryl Margaret McMillan, a New Zealand actress, were married at Evesham, Worcestershire; they had one daughter, Heather Rima, who was to become an actor and entertainer.

Te Wiata made successful tours of New Zealand in 1958 and 1962. He had sung the lead role in the Broadway musical The most happy fella in 1957; he reprised this role in the London production in 1960–61. Te Wiata then made an extensive recital tour of the USSR. The reception he received in each venue was ecstatic, and the quality of his voice was likened to that of the two bass singers most revered in that country – Chaliapin and Battistini. In 1963 he performed in seasons of The rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny. He then sang in Johannesburg in the musical Show boat. In spite of South Africa’s apartheid laws, he achieved both professional and personal success. He returned for another season in Show boat the following year, and again in 1969 to take the lead in South Pacific .

In 1965 Te Wiata took the role of Porgy in the New Zealand Opera Company’s production of Porgy and Bess , an opera written for black Americans, and all but three of the other major roles were played by a Maori cast. Te Wiata was aware of the significance of the production for Maori music and had turned down an important engagement in London. Few of the cast could read music, and they learnt the score by ear. The producer, Ella Gerber, and Te Wiata managed to get the best out of the cast. Te Wiata held everything together, dealing with dissensions and problems and ensuring the cast remained aware that this was a rare opportunity to establish Maori as serious singers. Porgy and Bess was a runaway success in every town and city they visited. Te Wiata was proclaimed by Gerber to be the finest Porgy she had worked with. The production successfully toured Australia, and later Gerber cast Te Wiata in a production in Israel, in which his portrayal of Porgy passed muster with all members of the black American cast.

In 1962 Te Wiata learnt that some form of artwork was wanted for the foyer of the new New Zealand House, which was under construction in the Haymarket, London. Te Wiata suggested a pouihi (central pole) and said he would design and carve it. A 600-year-old totara tree, from the Pureora Forest, was shipped to London in 1964. The design was approved by elders at Turangawaewae, even though aspects were highly innovative (some figures were in the European manner), while the styles of each major iwi were represented.

Te Wiata experienced a number of difficulties. He had not carved for over 30 years when he took on the project, and then it had been in bas relief only. Yet now he carved deeply into the wood, creating, with ease and assurance, features such as Maui – nine feet high, with an athletic body and straining muscles. While he was abroad on singing tours, new ideas were sketched on rehearsal sheets and on the back of music scores; he was frustrated by the enforced breaks, finding that his conception of some figures was liable to alter during the time away.

Te Wiata was appointed an MBE in 1966. He returned to New Zealand in 1968 to appear in Wellington in an eight-week Te Wiata Festival in which he performed in drama, concert and opera. The drama was Bruce Mason’s Awatea , the leading role having been written for him. He gave a memorable performance as the old blind chieftain, alternating with solo recitals, and the role of Osmin in Mozart’s opera Il seraglio. He also recorded two albums, one of which was the superb dramatic verse monologue Maui’s farewell .

In 1970 Te Wiata performed at the Royal Opera House in Boris Godunov and Verdi’s Don Carlos. In the same year, the New Zealand Maori Theatre Trust and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation sent a company of 35 performers headed by Te Wiata to Osaka, Japan, to appear in the production Green are the islands. Mismanagement by the theatre trust and the Australian promoters meant that a proposed world tour visited only the USSR, Budapest and Athens.

When Te Wiata returned to London, he was asked to take over the role of Johann Strauss Senior in The great waltz. He continued to work every day on the pouihi. A disagreement over the method of its erection was resolved in Te Wiata’s favour, so that the pouihi remained largely free-standing. However, he began to feel unwell, and cancer of the pancreas was diagnosed. He died on 26 June 1971.

On Te Wiata’s death, the pouihi was complete except for one canoe prow. Officials at New Zealand House arranged for it to be returned to New Zealand to be worked on by a carver who had described it as ‘the doodlings of someone who thought he could carve’. However, Beryl Te Wiata secured a promise from the prime minister, Keith Holyoake, that if the carving was to be completed, then Piri Poutapu should be approached. The pouihi was eventually completed by Te Wiata’s two sons, carving under Poutapu’s guidance.

It was not possible for Te Wiata’s body to be returned to New Zealand for burial; his ashes lie in the cemetery at Rangiatea Church, Otaki. At a memorial service in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, the congregation heard a large Maori chorus, followed by members of the Royal Opera House company and the cast of The great waltz. After his death, the vestry of Rangiatea Church turned down a proposal to erect a ceremonial gateway he had designed in 1958. The design, expressing a Maori concept of the history of the creation, was used instead at Turangawaewae marae.

How to cite this page:

Beryl Te Wiata. 'Te Wiata, Inia Morehu Tauhia Watene Iarahi Waihurihia', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 9 April 2020)