Te Araroa marches on the spot to the beat of a distant, and operatic, drum

One of the unpleasant side-effects of turning from reviewer to practitioner is that you become more tolerant of others' faults.

Just before starting Te Araroa, I reviewed for the New Zealand Herald the American writer Bill Bryson's new book on hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods.

Bryson broke his trail journey for a book launch (though he also, unfortunately I think, decided the AT was just too long and didn't walk all the trail ). Criticising those stops he made, and the book's general lack of momentum, I wrote words which come back to clout me now: "A trail book is a river movie: don't stop too long at the wharf."

Catch this rope! Tie it on! I need to lie up until early March. The reason is two-fold. Beyond Auckland, the trail goes down the publicly-owned stopbanks of the Waikato River. That requires negotiation, both with the regional authority Environment Waikato which owns the stop-banks, and with individual farmers whose leases do not presently have a public access clause and who do not have to let a tramper through.

The second and for the moment more compelling reason is the beginning of a new opera. With Jack Body, the Wellington musician, I wrote the libretto for the new opera Alley to be performed in the State Opera House February 27, 28 and March 1 at the opening of the New Zealand International Festival of Arts,

It is an unconventional opera with a terrific, risky, history. It was late 1996, we were just beginning, and I remember Jack pointing to the moon, saying: "Better to try, and fall flat on your arse, than not to try at all."

We did try. We did fall flat on our arses. The New Zealand International Festival of the Arts accepted the opera and planning was well down the track to bring in musicians and singers from China, a director Chen Shi-Zheng from New York, and the Australian opera star Lyndon Terracini, when Creative New Zealand refused any funding beyond $50,000.

That money was insufficient, but when everyone protested, we lost the $50,000 altogether. For months the opera was in crisis, and it finally went ahead - extraordinarily for a big production - on private funding.

The opera is based on the life of Rewi Alley, the New Zealand soldier and farmer who spent 60 years in China. Alley did great deeds and won great honour there, and at his death in 1987 was the best-known foreigner in the country. We dramatised the story by setting it in the hour of his death - a freewheeling hallucinatory state where anything can happen, and where a final and threatening judgement awaits.

Old Alley - played by Martyn Sanderson - sits in his chair. All the action that takes place behind this isolated figure is hallucination or dream. Behind the Old Alley is the Young Alley , played by Terracini, who sings of his shaping experiences in China, his vision of Chinese industrial co-operatives and his desert school in Gansu. A chorus of 20 mainly Asian and Polynesian dancers sings work songs, and give the opera its massed peasant action. Two Gansu folk singers, Li Guizhou, and Ji Zhengzhu, sing the songs that Alley listened to at night before huge coal fires in his isolated school. Chen Shi-Zheng, who has trained in traditional Chinese opera, not only directs, but takes the part of the Chinese God of Death, Yen Wang, inquisitor of Alley as he faces the final judgement.

I went to Wellington for part of the rehearsals. The pictures that follow are from the beginning of rehearsals at Victoria University's School of Music. The singers are not yet in costume - though Sanderson has an uncanny natural likeness to Alley, and Terracini will be made over to narrow the gap - and the Chinese musicians have not yet arrived from Beijing.

Company in rehearsal The Gansu folk singers, Li Guizhou and Ji Zhengzhu, listen while Professor Du Yaxiong, a Beijing musicologist and translator on the project, Jack Body, and director Chen Shi-Zheng make a point on performance. (The folk singers had never been far outside their villages, and paddled for the first time in the ocean after getting out of a car at Seatoun.) Director Jack Body crosses the performance space
Director Jack Body exits as Chen Shi-Zheng prepares to rehearse and Lyndon Terracini awaits the call behind.
The chorus in the stick dance
The chorus dances in rehearsal with bamboo poles
Climactic scene
Terracini and Sanderson as Young and Old Alley during a scene of accusation near the opera's climax.

I will attend the opening, but back in Auckland the pack stands ready to resume the trail.