Kenneth Young has a change of heart and pens himself an opera, writes Richard Betts.

"I always said I would never write an opera," says composer Kenneth Young, who has just written an opera. "I hadn't made enough study of the human voice, where I felt qualified to do something like that."

Young's being unduly modest. A musical polymath, he is equally comfortable as composer, conductor, record producer and university lecturer. For good measure, he spent 25 years playing in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Finally overcoming his reticence to write for voice meant Young was able to produce Man, Sitting in a Garden, a work for orchestra and solo singer ("My copyist says I should call it a monodrama but it's an opera") with a libretto by Witi Ihimaera, that premieres at Auckland Writers Festival on Wednesday.

One of the elements that caused Young to change his mind was knowing that Ihimaera would provide the words. However, when Young approached the award-winning novelist, the pair had never even met.


"I talked with [composers] Ross Harris and Dorothy Buchanan about him, and they said how good Witi is to work with so I emailed him. I got a reply within 30 minutes, with Witi saying, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'"

Ihimaera's love of opera runs deep. When he was a child, his grandmother gave him a few old 78rpm records, one of which featured the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Ihimaera was hooked and now admits that had he not been an author, he would have loved to have written music. Having listened to opera his whole life and with form as both a librettist and opera producer, Ihimaera understands the technical aspects of writing words that will be sung.

"Writing for the voice you have to be aware of endings, where the singer can breathe," Ihimaera says. "And when you write something like this, it's got to be graded in such a way that there's an escalation in terms of the drama on stage as well as the drama in the voice."

For the libretto, Ihimaera took inspiration from conversations with Young and the landscape paintings of Wellington artist Karl Maughan, a friend, and husband to Ihimaera's fellow writer Emily Perkins.

"When I was envisioning this piece, all I could think of was a man sitting in a garden and the garden would be all of Karl's beautiful paintings," Ihimaera says. "It seemed to me they represented time passing."

The opera slips through the four seasons but other than to say it's a dramatic piece, Ihimaera is coy about the details of his story.

"I don't really want to give it away," he says. "When you open a book you have the pleasure of an unknown world and when people come into this production I want them to have the thrill of discovery."

Young may not have been thrilled to discover that Ihimaera had written in conversations between characters, bearing in mind that Man, Sitting in a Garden is for solo singer.


"I tried to create opportunities for Ken to write arias and duets and choruses using only one voice." Ihimaera lets out an unexpectedly fiendish cackle. "So the man's singing a duet with his wife, who's not on stage. Ken looked at it and said, 'How the hell do we do that?' And I said, 'Well, that's what you do, you've got to figure that one out.'"

Despite throwing the occasional curly one Young's way, Ihimaera says he wrote for the composer's aesthetic: "I listened to a lot of Ken's work before ending up with a story and libretto that sounded like something he would have written himself. A lot of what is in there is how I think Ken thinks."

Ihimaera appears to have got it right; Young changed very little of the author's work when setting words to music. The orchestral textures, meanwhile, echo the richness of Maughan's paintings.

"[Maughan's] images are lush; my harmonic language tends to be lush," Young says. "So yeah, a lot of the beautiful summer patterns Karl has in his canvases you could say I have some of in the harmony."

Written across 20 months, Man, Sitting in a Garden is the biggest work Young has attempted and he's clearly proud of the opera he never wanted to write.

"One doesn't want to count chickens but, yeah, I am proud. I don't know why but it feels good. Gosh," he says, bursting into laughter, "I hope it's okay."

What: Man, Sitting in a Garden, by Kenneth Young and Witi Ihimaera, with Jared Holt and the APO
Where & When: Auckland Town Hall, 6pm, Wednesday, May 15