Len Lye plays to packed houses and wins plaudits from critics

Monday 10 September 2012, 5:19PM
By University of Auckland

The National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries’ (NICAI) production of LEN LYE the opera was a huge success during its four-night season at the Maidment Theatre (which ended on September 8th).

As a “multimedia event,” it brought together talented people from many areas of the University, including the School of Music (composer Eve de Castro-Robinson and conductor Uwe Grodd), English (stage director Murray Edmond), Film, Television and Media Studies (librettist Roger Horrocks) and Dance Studies (choreographer Emily Campbell). On stage School of Music lecturer Te Oti Rakena, played a pivotal role and the lively ensemble included several undergraduate and postgraduate students from Music’s vocal studies programme.

The season sold out and the Maidment box office had to turn away many disappointed people who were seeking last-minute tickets. The response to the show was extremely positive, with reviewers William Dart (NZ Herald), John Daly-Peoples (National Business Review) and Robbie Ellis (Theatreview) all sharing Ellis’s view that “this is a landmark production which deserves to be seen far more widely”.

In Dart’s words: “LEN LYE the opera was an arresting piece of musical theatre. A clever libretto by Roger Horrocks pretty much nailed the maverick Kiwi art hero and Eve de Castro-Robinson laced it with stylish zesty music…. A Cape Campbell youth was poetically evoked by Shirley Horrocks’s film projections, while director Murray Edmond coaxed lovely ensemble playing….” Daly-Peoples concluded that the work “has entered the annals of New Zealand opera with eloquent music and an intelligent libretto.”

There was also universal praise for Uwe Grodd’s musical direction and for the lead singers who included James Harrison, an alumnus of our university and now a high flier in the London opera world, playing the title role.

The opera was not just a striking music and drama experience but also an educational one. As James Harrison observed: “It’s an incredible story about such an incredible man. I really feel as though we have honoured him with the show.”

Lye’s two closest relatives in this part of the world, nieces Jan Worthington and Kay Dando, came to see the opera. Kay, who had made a special trip from Australia, wore a wooden tiki carved by Lye when he lived in Ponsonby in the early 1920s. Jan, who had never had the opportunity to get to know her grandmother Rose, said she burst into tears during the first act of the opera when Rose was vividly brought to life on stage by mezzo soprano Carmel Carroll.

Productions of original New Zealand operas are few and far between, but the resounding success of LEN LYE the opera has left its creative team in no doubt that the work will go on to reach other audiences.