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Iris Dreaming: Kiwi writer Robin Hyde 'was asking to have an opera written about her'

Iris Wilkinson aka Robin Hyde. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/1/2-043599-F, Coloured by Harry Burgess

Coming to a New Zealand stage fresh from its warmly received London premiere, a new opera about poet, novelist and journalist Robin Hyde is the result of a collaboration between one of our leading composers and a major New Zealand poet.

When New Zealand soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold approached Gillian Whitehead about composing a one-woman chamber opera for a London staging, the pair asked poet Fleur Adcock for a plot and libretto. Adcock went away and thought for just minutes. “Of course,” she recalls now, “it had to be about Robin Hyde.” So began the Iris Dreaming project.

Hyde, born Iris Wilkinson in 1906, is best known to New Zealanders through her ­autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly, published a year before her death, in London in 1939. A romanticised chronicle of her early life, it traces her journey to becoming a prolific and respected journalist, ­novelist and poet.

Her successes occurred despite personal difficulties, including a knee injury that left her permanently lame and with an addiction to pain-relieving morphine. Her first baby died at birth; her second, Derek, she left regretfully with foster parents. She struggled with the stigma of unmarried motherhood and had episodes of reckless behaviour and a mental breakdown that led to a suicide attempt and residential care. But her tribulations were highly fruitful for her writing.

Hyde struggled in the literary world and society of New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s. In the opera, her character sings lines from her novel A Home in this World:

Sometimes it seems to me I am caught

in the hinge of a slowly-opening door

between one age and another – the age

of respectability and the new age.

In 1938, Hyde set out alone for London. En route, an impulsive detour from Hong Kong took her to the battle lines of the Sino-Japanese war. Limping with her stick, she travelled to the front in a Chinese army uniform. Her adventures left their mark, not only in a great love of China but in the form of tropical sprue, an intestinal disease that would plague her for the rest of her life.

Adcock identifies closely with many of Hyde’s experiences, particularly that of the expatriate. “Before either of us, there was Katherine Mansfield,” she says. “There’s a tradition of New Zealand women leaving. We all went to Wellington Girls’ College, where Iris published things in the school magazine, as I did. She lived in places that I knew and I’d met her son, Derek. I did feel kind of close to her.”

Fleur Adcock, left, and Gillian Whitehead. Photo/Jemimah Kuhfeld; Gareth Watkins

Hyde’s story was ideal material for Adcock, who suggests wryly that the writer “was asking to have an opera written about her”.

“Her life was so amazingly dramatic, you could say melodramatic. She was a very powerful, determined character, fixated on writing; nothing would stop her. The story I wanted to tell wasn’t her childhood and youth: I wanted the baby and the next baby, China and then London. And saying goodbye to Derek when he was eight years old.”

The “caught in the hinge” lines are among many pieces of Hyde’s writing in the libretto; Adcock talks of “grabbing these colourful, vivid phrases”. Hyde was, she quotes, “‘in love with the pink lilies of China’, her baby’s hair was ‘bright as a ­sovereign, fresh from the mint’.”

The opera opens in a room in London in 1939, at the end of Hyde’s short life and on the brink of World War II. From here, the heroine looks back, singing her own audacious history. The first line echoes a passage from one of her poems inspired by China:

This room looks towards the West.

Outside, the great bronze sickle of the dusk

Mows the red poppies of the sunset clouds.

“Of course,” says Adcock, “the ‘red poppies of the sunset clouds’ were the perfect symbol for her morphine addiction. And then I continued the phrase: ‘Silk petals, white powder, an end to pain …’, a line that recurs and closes the opera.”

Hyde’s prose is full of energy; words, characters and­ descriptions pour in profusion across the pages. Adcock’s libretto, in contrast, is spare and poetic.

“Fleur’s writing has an economy and at times a dry humour,” says Whitehead. “She says things succinctly and has a real sense of drama – and a real understanding of music.”

Whitehead has written a dozen operas and monodramas. Even so, working with the Iris Dreaming libretto was difficult. “The text has its ebb and flow, its points of calm and energy. You have to devise a musical structure that will intersect with that, and that’s not always easy. It’s important to have an organic structure that encompasses the drama of the text and the ­musical drama.”

Hyde was in Whitehead’s mind as she composed. “Out of a sort of respect, I had to write music that, if she heard it she would understand it. I couldn’t use a musical style that would be too foreign to her. At times I found I had to tell some of this story in almost a folk idiom.”

Robin Hyde. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/PA1-o-1400-23-1

Roughton-Arnold, the work’s commissioner and soloist, will travel here for its New Zealand premiere at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson next month. “It’s been an incredible roller-coaster ride,” she says, “going from the initial germ of an idea to actually bringing Iris’ story to life on stage. When I received the score, it felt like Christmas, and I confess to having shed a tear or two when I saw how Gillian had set Fleur’s words. Gillian’s been absolutely led by the text: it’s so expressive and rewarding to sing. I love the variety of vocal colour from quasi-folk to full lyric writing, to spoken sections, to demanding coloratura in what is effectively a mad scene.”

Whitehead and Adcock have been telling women’s stories in opera since 1979, when both were awarded artist residencies in northeast England. A shared interest in medieval history and local legends led them to the heroic Henry Percy or Hotspur, who gave his name to their first monodrama in 1980, told from the point of view of Elizabeth, the hero’s wife.

They have since created five stage works together, including Out of this Nettle, Danger, based on the writings of Katherine Mansfield. Adcock says their ­collaboration is built on “our minds working in tune with each other”. As she wrote in a recent poem, “… After him [Hotspur] came a parade of ­heroines,/from medieval queens to my great-aunt Alice, to sing their way through their difficult lives.”

In operatic terms, Iris Dreaming is a miniature – 40 minutes with one singer and a 10-piece chamber ensemble. The Adam Festival production, directed by Sara Brodie, will be performed in the refurbished Theatre Royal, with an even smaller ensemble – the violin, cello and piano of the NZ Trio. Whitehead acknowledges some challenges in arranging the piece for a trio, but believes the “portability of it is very much in its favour”.

It’s the first time in the festival’s 25 years that an opera has been included, but having this important new work in our most prestigious chamber music event seems highly appropriate.

Iris Dreaming, by Fleur Adcock and Gillian Whitehead, Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson, February 6.

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.