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.