Īnia Mōrehu Tauhia Wātene Iarahi Waihurihia Te Wīata (originally Te Iwiata) was born in Ōtaki on 10 June 1915 to Wātene Te Wīata and his wife, Constance Helena Johnson, also known as Kone (Connie) Papi Nīkora. His father was of Māori–Scots descent with affiliations to Ngāti Raukawa; his mother was of Swedish descent. After Wātene Te Wīata died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Īnia’s mother had a struggle to make ends meet by taking in washing, cleaning offices and doing housework. When Īnia was eight she married Pāneta Te Waaka Naihi, also known as Barnet Waaka. Īnia was then sent to live with Rākate and Pairoroku Rikihana, relations of his father.
They were market gardeners and before and after school Īnia 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. Īnia attended Ōtaki primary school and Ōtaki Native College. Pairoroku was well-versed in Māoritanga, and noting Īnia’s keen interest in the subject singled him out as worthy of learning whakapapa. Īnia had grown up speaking Māori, but at primary school was to learn and speak in English only.
Īnia became a basso profundo when he was 14, and was allowed to join a popular trio made up of Mihi’s brother Dan, Wī Nicholls and Henry Tāhiwi. He was known as ‘Happy’ from around this time. In 1932 the deep, powerful voice Īnia had displayed in the Rangiātea Church choir was noticed by the Reverend A. J. Seamer, who had formed a Methodist Māori Mission choir. Seamer engaged Īnia 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 Wīata 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 Māori 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 Īnia.
He was approaching 20 when Seamer suggested to the elders of Ngāti Raukawa that he should be sent to Tūrangawaewae to develop his knowledge of carving. Te Puea Hērangi saw great potential in Te Wīata and assigned her head carver, Piri Poutapu, to teach him while she increased his knowledge of Māoritanga. She arranged for Poutapu to take him to the Wellington and Auckland museums to study the finest examples of Māori art. Poutapu proclaimed him to be the best pupil he ever had.
In 1937 Seamer arrived at Ngāruawāhia to announce that the mission choir was to tour England and he wanted Te Wīata as his soloist. He had already been chosen as a carver for King Korokī’s residence, Tūrongo, and decided he had an obligation to his tribe to remain and carve. On 7 June 1939, at Ngāruawāhia, he married Rose Evelyn Friar, known as Ivy, a young relative of Te Puea’s; they had six children.
Te Wīata worked at the Horotiu freezing works and on local farms. One farmer was so impressed when he heard Īnia singing that he arranged for his brother, who taught voice production, to hear him; free lessons were immediately arranged. Īnia (sometimes calling himself Happy Davidson) sang to entertain troops and at smoke concerts. An Aucklander, Jack Grant, attended one of the concerts in Te Kūiti and was so astounded at the quality of Te Wīata’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 Wīata could not read music. Ballads and Māori 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 Wīata’s voice and demeanour, commenced fund-raising to support his family should a scholarship be granted for overseas study. Te Wīata 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 Wīata sailed for London, leaving his family in New Zealand.
Te Wīata 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 Wīata 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 Wīata’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 Wīata 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 Wīata was asked to create a Māori ‘coat of arms’ for an altar frontal for Rangiātea 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 Māori motif on the right.
During breaks in the Opera House contract, Te Wīata 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 Wīata 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 Wīata 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 Wīata’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 Wīata 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 Wīata 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 Wīata 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 Māori cast. Te Wīata was aware of the significance of the production for Māori 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 Wīata managed to get the best out of the cast. Te Wīata held everything together, dealing with dissensions and problems and ensuring the cast remained aware that this was a rare opportunity to establish Māori as serious singers. Porgy and Bess was a runaway success in every town and city they visited. Te Wīata was proclaimed by Gerber to be the finest Porgy she had worked with. The production successfully toured Australia, and later Gerber cast Te Wīata in a production in Israel, in which his portrayal of Porgy passed muster with all members of the black American cast.
In 1962 Te Wīata 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 Wīata suggested a pouihi (central pole) and said he would design and carve it. A 600-year-old tōtara tree, from the Pureora Forest, was shipped to London in 1964. The design was approved by elders at Tūrangawaewae, even though aspects were highly innovative (some figures were in the European manner), while the styles of each major iwi were represented.
Te Wīata 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 Māui – 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 Wīata was appointed an MBE in 1966. He returned to New Zealand in 1968 to appear in Wellington in an eight-week Te Wīata 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 Māui’s farewell .
In 1970 Te Wīata performed at the Royal Opera House in Boris Godunov and Verdi’s Don Carlos. In the same year, the New Zealand Māori Theatre Trust and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation sent a company of 35 performers headed by Te Wīata 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 Wīata 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 Wīata’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 Wīata’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 Wīata 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 Wīata’s two sons, carving under Poutapu’s guidance.
It was not possible for Te Wīata’s body to be returned to New Zealand for burial; his ashes lie in the cemetery at Rangiātea Church, Ōtaki. At a memorial service in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, the congregation heard a large Māori chorus, followed by members of the Royal Opera House company and the cast of The great waltz. After his death, the vestry of Rangiātea Church turned down a proposal to erect a ceremonial gateway he had designed in 1958. The design, expressing a Māori concept of the history of the creation, was used instead at Tūrangawaewae marae.