REVIEW: Len Lye the opera

Len Lye in his element

Len me your ears!! [by Sharu Delilkan]

Len Lye in his element

I’m always a sucker for a live band or in this case orchestra on stage. I realise that it comes with its own set of technical difficulties but being a live music fiend seeing them on stage the minute I entered the theatre made me smile.

And of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the amazing hats that adorned all the members of the orchestra, including the artistic director/conductor Uwe Grodd, which had my seal of approval, being a hat person myself.

You probably know by now that I don’t purport to be an opera expert, although I love the dramatic side of an operatic production. But on this occasion I was privileged to have a very good friend of mine Jennifer Scott, who was visiting from the US, accompany my hubby and I to the much anticipated premiere of Len Lye the opera. Having spent the last four years in the US watching world class opera, I feel compelled to occasionally quote her in this review as an informed source.

The much anticipated opera celebrating New Zealand’s Len Lye, a pioneer of kinetic art and filmmaking, opens and closes at Cape Campbell at the tip of the South Island where he lived as a boy, a befitting location framing this iconic New Zealander’s story.

In addition to his kinetic works, Lye was highly regarded as a filmmaker whose radical techniques broke new ground, particularly in the field of animation. The AV projections of film were a great tribute to his technique of “direct animation” – a process of drawing and scratching designs directly onto film, which has earned him the accolade of “legendary” among many animators.

Both Shirley Horrocks’ moving images and John Verryt’s staging making up the multimedia elements of the production were excellent, which aptly includes the multitude of kinetic movement on stage. The minimalist staging is clever with the undulating panels look like white folds of paper that become pedestals, which could be likened to waves of the sea, or even celluloid of Lye’s films.

Other members of the award-winning creative team that contributed to the multi-media extravaganza were Eve de Castro-Robinson (composer), Roger Horrocks (libretto), Murray Edmond (stage director), Kristen Sorrenson (costume design) and Nik Janiurek (lighting design).

The dance sequences with the chorus, choreographed by Emily Campbell, were particularly enjoyable. To be honest I would have happily watched a few more, they were on offer.

However with regards to Len Lye himself, I must agree with Jennifer’s reaction: “I did feel that a lot of the time Len was watching the action rather than instigating it.”

The small chamber group’s placement on stage was fabulous, giving it a ‘speakeasy’ feel. Mezzo Soprano Anna Pierard was clearly a stand out as Lye’s second wife Ann.

Musically, there were some excellent flashes of personality but sadly apart from the last one, none of the songs were particularly memorable. However I must mention the clever use of metal sheets in the percussion section, which I felt were a great reflection of Lye’s kinetic art.

I totally agree with Jennifer that the production would have been enhanced by the inclusion of of surtitles.

She says: “It is common practice in the US for all productions to have surtitles, even those sung in English.” The lack of surtitles, exacerbated by the sound level and articulation issues, only enabled me to understand half of the libretto, making for a disconnected experience from the work, as a whole.

Lye (James Harrison) coming into the audience with his iconic Wind Wand was clearly a highlight of the evening. The fact that he had to walk right in front of former Labour MP Judith Tizard added to the hilarity of the act of installing the Wind Wand in the middle of the theatre.

Overall, Len Lye the opera has huge potential and his story is definitely one that needs to be told. I do hope that further development of this premiere work will give it a life beyond the four nights at The Maidment.

The opera epitomises Lye’s belief that “art is freedom”. And I’ll leave you with this from Lye who says “If I could explain, it wouldn’t be art”.

Len Lye The Opera is presented by National Institute of Arts and Industries (NICAI) and The University of Auckland and it played at the Maidment Theatre from 5-9 Sept. More information see NICAI

SEE ALSO: review by Robbie Ellis

2 Comments on REVIEW: Len Lye the opera

  1. Regardless of whether or not surtitles are standard for opera audiences in the United States or New Zealand, I always view music theatre (which includes opera) with the following criteria:
    – If you are presenting performed text;
    – If the text is in a language universally understood by the audience;
    – If you have to resort to subtitles to make your text comprehensible;
    you have failed.

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