Ten years in the making, with a full house on opening night, 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.

LLTO set off with an onstage band, under the hip baton of Uwe Grodd, moving us from clamour to charleston; then, over shifting harmonies, James Harrison's Len Lye introduced his life journey.

A Cape Campbell youth was poetically evoked with Shirley Horrocks' film projections while director Murray Edmond coaxed lovely ensemble playing between Lye, the artist as a young boy (Daniel Sewall) and mother Rose (Carmel Carroll).


Carroll's elemental lullaby contrasted with Andrew Laing manically combining fish gutting and possessed fiddling, caught with the prickly sounds that de Castro-Robinson knows how to deliver.

Despite myriad musical textures and styles, the score did hold together. Movement, Lye's own catchword, was a unifying force. Even when Te Oti Rakena and chorus were decrying modernism in staunch 4/4, clouds drifted gracefully across the sky through the windows of academe.

London in 1921 was caught on the dance-floor, resourcefully choreographed by Emily Campbell. The high soprano of Ursula Langmayr playing Lye's first wife, Jane, was not always word-friendly, but she made the most of the composer's individual takes on the rumba and blues.

Harrison worked well with expressive arioso, spinning enough art theory and politics to rival Sondheim's Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George.

After interval, a big band rumble ushered us into the 1940s, and Darryn Harkness' breezily vernacular streetsinger, singing to his own bottleneck guitar.

Anna Pierard was a deeply sympathetic presence as Lye's second wife, Ann. She may not have had memorable solo turns but, in deep and searching duet with Harrison, she helped forge a personal and aesthetic heart for the opera.

Perhaps the last act tried too hard to satisfy the demands of an operatic finale. Words were too often lost and the chorus was ragged. Not enough, though, to detract from a stimulating work that deserves to have a life after this short season.

What: Len Lye The Opera
Where: Maidment Theatre
When: Wednesday