Theatre: The Lye of the Land

By William Dart

Baritone lead singer James Harrison, composer Eve de Castro-Robinson and conductor Uwe Grodd. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Baritone lead singer James Harrison, composer Eve de Castro-Robinson and conductor Uwe Grodd. Photo / Sarah Ivey

A decade ago, Eve de Castro-Robinson seemed content to pursue an instrumental groove, with a series of award-winning scores for our major orchestras and numerous exquisitely fashioned chamber works.

With the premiere of her new opera on Len Lye just days away, she admits she "gradually warmed to words after feeling for years that they were so wonderful by themselves - why do anything with them?"

One of the catalysts in her change of heart has been Roger Horrocks, the undisputed world authority on Lye, who furnished the libretto for Len Lye The Opera.

"The more I've got to know Roger's words, the more clever I realise they are," she says. "He's created the whole story of Len Lye in a 90-minute nutshell, and done so poetically."

Len Lye The Opera has been 10 years in the making. Meanwhile, the Auckland composer has been dispensing tantalising tasters, such as the ebullient orchestral piece Len Dances and a set of Len Songs, written for mezzo Helen Medlyn.

Now the time has come for a full tribute to the man who was a major force in the fields of experimental film and kinetic sculpture, both of which you can see next week as part of Shirley Horrocks' on-screen contribution to the new opera.

"Lye was quintessentially creative," de Castro-Robinson enthuses. "And he was self-focused, extremely charismatic and appealing to women which was infuriating for both his wives, the volatile Jane and the long-suffering Ann.

"He was a workaholic with an absolute dedication to many art forms," she adds, even to the point of being "the grandfather of the music video".

Obviously there is no shortage of material for an engrossing theatrical experience. "The audience is taken on quite a journey, visually, emotionally and musically," de Castro-Robinson explains. "I see it as quite a piece of entertainment, including some very moving moments."

Baritone James Harrison plays the adult Len Lye. Describing him, the composer says, "James has charisma, intelligence and flexibility, as well as being a Len Lye lookalike."

She marvels at the way Harrison, together with Ursula Langmayr and Anna Pierard - playing the two wives - "just 'get' what you want when you're working in rehearsals. They ask what their characters might be thinking at a particular moment and that's very rewarding."

De Castro-Robinson initially jests that one of the main challenges of the opera has been getting it completed, but a more central concern has been holding the evening's 29 scenes together, which has meant condensing the various musical styles into clear categories.

These range from a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan-like parody in a scene concerning the young Lye's scuffles with the Canterbury Society of Arts, to the magical, dream-like music of the final act.

Dance is a crucial element, both dramatically and musically, and de Castro-Robinson sings snatches of a rather catchy rumba from her jazz-infused score.

"It's not conventional jazz," she adds. "But we've got a terrific jazz trio in Roger Manins, Ron Samsom and Olivier Holland."

She stresses that nearly all of the music is notated - necessarily so when Manins' sax has the task of being something of an alter ego for Lye himself. The exception is "a bit of drum kit and double bass where those guys will do it better on their own. I just have to ask for a bebop or rumba feel, and Ron Samsom will nail it."

It's an initiative that seems in total harmony with a venture that harnesses a staggering range of energies and talents.

On what other stage might you find director Murray Edmond, conductor Uwe Grodd, mezzo Carmel Carroll and alt.music troubadour Darryn Harkness who plays a latterday Brechtian busker?

Catch Len Lye The Opera and find out.

What: Len Lye, The Opera
Where and when: Maidment Theatre, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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