Len Lye: An inspiring new opera

James Harrison as Len Lye with Anna Pierard as Ann (Len’s second wife) and Danie

Len Lye: The Opera

By Eve de Castro-Robinson and Roger Horrocks

Maidment Theatre, Auckland

Until September 8


Many New Zealand works have sought to give a sense of being of this place – the tyranny of distance and the No 8 wire approach to life – but few have achieved it so well as Len Lye, the new opera by composer Eve de Castro-Robinson and librettist Roger Horrocks.

It is the story of the great New Zealander who was one of the foremost experimental and kinetic artists of the 20th century.

He lived most of his life in New York but in the last few years several of his works have been built in this country as a testament to his inspirational thought and inspired designs.

Like other major opera operas of the last few decades by such composers as Philip Glass and John Adams,  the opera uses multimedia elements, political commentary, popular music and other unconventional elements not normally found in more traditional fare.

The back-projected visuals which include some fine video work by Leon Narby give a sense of time and place while adding to the personal drama of Lye’s life.

Opera is excellent at exploring and exposing the emotional lives of individuals in crisis and at times of dramatic events. With Len Lye there is an attempt to understand not only the emotional nature of the man but also his creative impulses.

We are shown the impact his early life and experiences had on his later career, such as his violin playing stepfather and his doting mother.

We are also exposed to the visual images which were to influence his work – the light, sand, water and glittering sun, and the impressive, vertical structure of the lighthouse where his father worked, along with its mesmeric flashing lights.

The orchestra under Uwe Grodd plays a major part of the production, sitting across the rear of the stage and a cross between a chamber orchestra and cabaret band. 

De Castro Robinson’s music provides a variety of settings, responding to the visual landscapes, the characters' emotional conditions and as accompaniment to some of Lye’s on-screen creations.

This was brilliantly achieved in responding to Free Radicals and the final Flip and Two Twisters.

James Harrison as Lye gives an impressive performance in singing of these impacts on his life. He has a sense of Lye’s keen eye, his desire to communicate and his infatuation with life. In some crucial sequences he was unable to clearly articulate, however.

In addition to Lye taking inspiration from his environment, he also needed a companion and it is his second wife Ann who becomes an essential part of his creative and emotional life. The search for love and the creative impulse combines in this work.

Anna Pierard as Ann is the stand-out performer, with some incisive singing about their relationship portraying how the personal, the social and the aesthetic intersect.

Andrew Laing gives an astute interpretation of Ford Powell, Lye’s stepfather, while Darryn Harkness is entertaining in his brief appearance as a New York busker.

The well-rounded performance of Ursula Langmayr as Jane Lye, the artist’s first wife, and Carmel Carroll as his mother Rose, add additional layers to the artist’s character and history.

With song being one of the most memorable aspects it is crucial the themes and ideas are brought clearly to life, but in several areas this is not realised.

The main problem – and one which applies to many contemporary productions – is the failure to recognise that subtitles have become an integral part of opera productions, even those in English. To do without them does a disservice to both the audience and the singers.

For all that, Len Lye has entered the annals of New Zealand opera with eloquent music and an intelligent libretto. I hope it will be staged again very soon, and that it does not languish like so many other recent New Zealand works.

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17 Comments & Questions

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I remember sitting in one of de Castro's composition lectures at uni listening to her declare to her class that she was the modern day equivalent of Beethoven. In the entire time I 'studied' with her she taught me absolutely nothing about composition, just gave excessive amounts of mostly pointless work to do instead. One of the worst teachers I've ever had.

I suspect the idea of a biographical opera was lifted from John Rimmer's opera Galileo, and the theme was chosen largely due to the fact that Lye was a kiwi, thereby enabling the coffers of Creative NZ to be opened. De Castro's nationalist socialist tendencies were probably a factor also.

This opera employs a theme that I would suspect lacks drama (i.e. boring) and I won't be bothering to waste my time watching another work from NZ's self declared 'modern day equivalent of Beethoven'. After all is said and done I bet it's just another mediocre composition that exists purely because it's from New Zealand and nothing else. The composer has her nose firmly in the public trough of the NZ taxpayer either through Creative NZ grants or the Auckland Uni.

Having said that, all the other musicians are top notch and are sure to give a good performance.

To the composition students out there - study composition at Victoria Uni.


I saw the opera last night and thought it was fantastic - particularly the music which I loved. Perhaps Anonymous is disgruntled and jealous. Go make some music!


#1: You need to cheer up a bit. Although your point is obscure, it might be relevant that Rimmer's Galileo was initially commissioned out of the same CNZ initiative as Len Lye.

Unfortunately, for both Rimmer and CNZ, Galileo it sank without a trace (although personally, I enjoyed it). We can only hope that LL will do better, just as we wish the best for all venutres, regardless of the source of their funding.

With an NZ subject, it might be of interest to the Wellington festival. That'll be more taxpayer subsidy, which you clearly object to. Then they might export it to the Adelaide festival. Do Australian tax dollars upset you as much as NZ ones? What say Edinburgh buy it? Still problematic?


Dreams are free.


I get tired of people assuming that we're all swimming in Creative NZ cash. Yes, Creative NZ did assist with the initial writing (not the complete opera) a decade ago, and did assist in the creation of the background images for this production, but quite a few people (including myself as the writer, and Shirley as the director of the moving images, and Eve as the composer, to mention a few) have worked for months unpaid to make it possible for this production to happen. We are delighted that it has finally been possible to bring it to the stage, but it's sad that someone like Anonymous is so ignorant of the reality of creating such a production in New Zealand that they think those involved are doing it for money! If we were doing it for the money we would be working in advertising or making TV 'reality' programmes - not an original opera. Talk of public arts funding as a "public trough" is one of the most unfair and ignorant cliches in circulation, since anyone with a serious involvement will know that survival in the arts in this country is never easy. As Ann Lye sings in the opera, "There's no money in art - - but [also] no art in money!"


How much money did Creative NZ give the project in total Roger?


Creative NZ did not fund the stage production, with the exception of the moving images. (Its contribution to the moving images was to pay for travel and a cameraman - the director/producer had to work for nothing.). Ten years ago CNZ gave me $5000 (if I remember correctly) to write the original version of the opera. In terms of our stage production, we asked CNZ if it could help but it said no because a university was involved. We needed to raise a lot of money to fund the stage production. The university provided some initial funding (which was very important to us) and we then went out to raise the rest from private sponsors (thank god for them) and groups like the Cut Above which provided free services. To make the production possible, some of the key creative team needed to agree not to be paid. So the project cost some of us a lot of time and money. I'm not complaining about this - I'm very happy that the opera is on the stage - but I do get upset when someone like Anonymous implies that we are ripping off the taxpayer and rolling in money. "Nose in the public trough" - yeah, right!


I was lucky enough to have Eve as a lecturer and supervisor during my time at the University of Auckland School of Music and found her to be one of the most inspiring, encouraging and generous teachers I've ever had. I have many colleagues who share this view. Eve has an extraordinary knack for being able to help students in the development of their own musical language without impinging her own language, opinions or ego upon them. I've never heard a cross word from her, even when having to deal with some particularly difficult personalities.

I continue to find Eve's music a constant source of inspiration in its ability to surprise and move me with its vast and vibrant colour palette. Indeed, 'Len Songs' for mezzo, clarinet, violin and piano is fabulously evocative. I can't wait to see the opera tomorrow night.

I'm sure Anonymous's comments must be, in fact, a backhanded way of encouraging those in favour of this wonderful project to voice their support! Clearly Anonymous hasn't actually seen the opera - not to worry, I'm sure you will make it to a performance during a subsequent season and love it in spite of yourself!


Wow... I am amazed at the outburst in the first comment, especially in light of how the arts have clearly suffered in the current climate. It's more important than EVER to pay tribute to those who have made the artistic identity of this country great and I, who HAVE seen the opera, thought every aspect was utterly spellbinding. I'm quite confused by some of your points - it is absolutely not a new thing to produce biographical opera - Philip Glass and many others frequently make their subjects a person of historical or artistic importance.

I completed a composition degree at Victoria University and loved it but I have also performed a few of Eve's works, which I found highly innovative and exciting. I am also an opera singer residing in London, where I have performed and seen new international works so I can say with a certain degree of authority that this is a work of great significance for this country. The irresponsible musings of 'Anonymous' make me very sad indeed. Perhaps, next time you decide to voice your opinion, you should make it your duty to find out the facts before you make such grossly incorrect claims.

And thank you Roger, both for being so gracious and also for your dedication to the project. I felt enriched both as an audience member and a New Zealander.


Len Lye the opera was a work of inspiration, created by people who dare to give birth to their idea's, gifts and knowledge. I came away from opening night overwhelmed with the tsunami of sound dancing in my head, and the delight of visual images both filmic and theatrical. The scene of the chorus marching on stage with their smocks and canvas's was like a flock of doves circling into land. The work is a gem.


the funding issue is red herring

the libretto was painful - a real pity given the quality of horrocks' book


Yes, agree with #11. The libretto was painful and the choice of opera to reflect on possibly one of our greatest artists was a mistake. The libretto was riddled with artist cliches and rather than grappling with the rich landscape of ideas that Len's work embodied instead chose to focus on his relations with women and the hackneyed misunderstood artist trope. Yawn. The music was inspired at times but languished when the action on stage did not suit. Kudos to the musicians and the set was interesting as well. Was great to see some of Len's film work projected onto a large screen. A musical? ... maybe; Len was a musical guy and a play might have been able to approach the subject with some gravitas, but opera seemed incongruous with the zeitgeist of both Len and the contemporary world.


I would have loved to have been able to get to Auckland to see this - sadly work and family commitments have meant that I wasn't able too. I think it is just amazing to have something like this be created and funded in New Zealand - even if I didn't like it I would welcome the fact that all the people involved in playing, making, funding and staging had the courage of their conviction. I am just waiting for the DVD - someone did ensure there would be a filmed version right??????????


This is weird stuff. "Anonymous" writes two angry emails about the fact that we received some public funding, then he admits in a third email that this issue was a "red herring"!!
I'm afraid I can not respect the opinions of someone who writes bitchy comments (like his original comments about Eve) while continuing to hide behind the protection of a pseudonym. That's one of the problems of the internet - people can bully others (as he tried to bully Eve), while remaining "anonymous".
As for "Another Anonymous", his style looks suspiciously like our original Anonymous, trying hard to whip up some support. for himself I'll be amused if more of these anonymous characters start to multiply in the course of this exchange!
Of course the opera has its weaknesses, but I'm afraid I can't take seriously the comments of a smart-ass who doesn't have the courage to even tell us his name.


A plethora of anonymities ..... weirdness not to be taken seriously :)


I see that another "anonymous" has joined the exchange, but a friendly anonymous this time. Just to answer his/her question: I regret to say that there won't be a filmed version as we absolutely did not have the budget to make one. We made a simple copy just to document the show, but it's not the sort of copy we can distribute, and we would of course have had to negotiate with the singers and musicians to purchase the rights to do that. However, the Concert Programme has recorded the show, so at least the audio aspect will be heard again.


Thanks Roger! In relation to a filmed version/DVD, I guess that's rather unfortunate because the work could have reached a wider audience over time, but I imagine you were fortunate to be able to do the show at all in this country. I look forward to the Concert Programme broadcast in due course.

BTW I'm Anonymous because my name would mean nothing to anyone, and Anonymous was the course of least resistance, (auch wie Keuner habe ich kein Rückgrat zum Zerschlagen zum gleichen Grund - ich muß länger leben als die gewaltigen Anderen) - so perhaps I should have made it Alias! Alas!

Don't be dispirited by petty criticisms and ad hominem attacks. It seems to me that (in the generalisation) New Zealand like Australia, has drunk too deeply at the British well ... and accordingly displays a deep suspicion of, and hostility toward, anything smelling of intellectualism, especially when combined with any appearance of elitism; that latter when expressed anywhere other than on the sports field, arena, or water. As a result, it seems unsurprising to me that many of New Zealand's arts community display symptoms of repitition compulsion disorder (as Sigmund could have called it). You'll recall his anecdote of the small child throwing its toy out of the cot in Beyond The Pleasure Principle, no doubt. Seems apt.

In my view, it's brave and wonderful for you and the others to make and successfully stage a modern opera in a small Third World country with First World pretensions like this one, and that that deserves celebration rather than sniping.


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