Masi, magic and a good old fashioned romance come together in a Polynesian opera.


Masi tells the story of the fairytale meeting of a Fijian chief and the daughter of two Cambridge educated teachers at a Wellington chess club. On stage, this 1950s meeting is re-enacted before a backdrop of real family photographs of Nowalowalo’s parents playing chess and on their wedding day , taken by the then unknown New Zealand photographer Ans Westra who was her mother’s flatmate in the 1950s. Photo: Jamie Williams

Classical opera is about love, death, superb music and opulent staging, and so too is Masi, a new work by Nina Nawalowalo, the creative force behind Wellington’s The Conch Pacific theatre company. Masi was created for the 2012 New Zealand Arts Festival, where it received rave reviews before opening in Fiji and briefly visiting Australia as part of  the 2013 Sydney Festival.

Masi is the Fijian word for bark cloth or tapa, a soft and pliable cloth made by beating out strips of paper mulberry tree bark, felting   them together to make larger pieces, and painting and decorating these to make clothing, sitting mats and house decorations. It was once the common fabric of the Pacific, now replaced by trade cloth.

A 19th century postcard shows a young Fijian couple dressed in intricately patterned masi.



Fiji is a very Christian society today, but the role of tapa survives as an embodiment of the essentially Polynesian social relationships and personal obligations uniting Fijians both in Fiji and the diaspora. It is also a symbol of cultural survival, created by thousands of Fijian women who still beat out the bark strips on wooden blocks with their grooved tapa hammers, or weave the fine grass mats with woollen fringes that serve the same purpose – these may still be exchanged by the dozen, or even by the hundred, at every really important event.

Once, the most common sound in any Fijian village used to be the tap, tap, tapping of the tapa hammers, but with many Fijian women in full time jobs today, masi is often created by specialist crafts villages and purchased when needed to meet social obligations

The magnificent masi cloth that drapes the proscenium arch of the stage for this production  was especially produced by the women of Ekuba village on the island of Vatulele, Fiji and th e precision of its patterns and vibrant colours recall the finest examples of 18th and 19th century masi in western  museums.

The magnificent masi used to dress the stage was especially produced by women of Ekuba village on the island of Vatulele, Fiji. . Photo: NZ Arts Festival

 Nawalowalo wrote Masi to honour the memories of   mother and father. Her father, Ratu Noa Nowalowalo, a chief from the island of Kadavu, came to Wellington in New Zealand in the1950s to complete his education. There, in the sedate and somewhat scruffy surroundings of the Wellington Chess Club, he met the blond daughter of two Cambridge educated teachers and they fell in love and married.

Masi It is a real story about real people, but told in an un-real way. Nowalowalo is a director who fearlessly combines staging techniques most directors would never have considered workable and that is a large part of the charm of this production.

A superb strip of 19th century masi . Photo: David Said

And then there is the magic. The illusions were designed by Paul Kieve, who consulted for the Harry Potter movies and who is an old friend of Nawalowalo’s (she must have the world’s most eclectic address book). At Kieve’s behest, human beings emerge from thrown tapa cloths that were empty rags a moment before, and paper mulberry trees grow on stage.

Nawalowalo also borrows the idea of the sideways wipe from early cinema as unseen actors carry screens across the stage on which slides are projected, usually serving to advance the narrative or provide a link between one scene and the next. This is a compelling, almost hypnotic narration told in movement, music, Fijian chants   and images, without any dialogue in English.

Two dancers of the renowned Kabu ni Vanua dance troupe explode into the air with coiled spring energy during the fast and furious male meke dancing presentation. Photo: Jamie Williams

The other link between scenes are the six  male dancers from the renowned  Kabu ni Vanua  dance troupe, who represent the Chief’s Fijian spirit and who provide the chorus and  the movements of classic Fijian traditional meke dancing which is interwoven into the story  to  symbolise the spirit of Nawalowalo’s father.

They are responsible for 10 or 12 heart- stopping minutes when  all hell breaks loose  as the dancers emerge through a  curtain of masi with its  patterns projected onto  their bodies and  perform a  fast and  flashy  male meke dance  full of complex moves involving the entire upper body, all perfectly synchronised.

This could have been the climax of the performance, but Nawalowalo is always full of surprises, and this frenetic explosion of sound and movement gives way to a solemn, slow-danced coda which is a chant for her father’s funeral.  Brava!

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