The Piano, 156 Armagh Street, Christchurch

27/05/2022 - 28/05/2022

Mayfair Theatre, 100 King Edward Street, Kensington, Dunedin

12/10/2022 - 13/10/2022

Dunedin Arts Festival 2022

Production Details

Composed by – Kenneth Young (with Anna Leese)
Libretto by – Georgia Jamieson Emms
Commissioned by – Anna Leese

Conductor – Kenneth Young
Director – Eleanor Bishop

World premiere of a new opera 

Your great power lies not on the surface, but deep within your being.” – Roger McDonald

A poignant and imaginative reflection on events during Janet Frame’s time at Seacliff Mental Hospital, The Strangest of Angels is a harrowing and hopeful experience that throws light on mental health then and now.

Co-created by Kenneth Young, Anna Leese and Georgia Jamieson Emms, and Commissioned by Anna Leese, The Strangest of Angels is born of an exciting and conscious collaboration between composer and performers that explores the contrast between a calm, rational psychiatric patient and a traumatised nurse torn between empathy and the relative power of institutional duty. 

World premiere performances directed by Friedlander Foundation Associate Artist Eleanor Bishop and starring Anna Leese and Jayne Tankersley. 

Proudly presented by NZ Opera and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in Christchurch. 

Tickets to opening night on 27 May are SOLD OUT but there are still tickets available for 28 May!

This Opera is an artistic and critical work. While it features actual events and real life individuals, this is a work of fiction and content has been created for dramatic purposes.

The Piano, Christchurch
27 & 28 May 2022
Adult  $59.00
NZ Opera Benefactor  $55.00
Senior  $55.00
Under 18s  $25.00
Under 25s & Students  $25.00

    PRE-SHOW TALK, Christchurch – both nights
You can find out more about the opera by attending the free pre-show talk where Eleanor Bishop will share some insights into the development of this new work. The talk will begin at 7.00pm at The Box (in The Piano complex). Please note that capacity is limited to the first 35 people.

In Dunedin The Strangest of Angels is presented with the Dunedin Arts Festival and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.

Mayfair Theatre, Dunedin
12 & 13 October 2022

Composed by – Kenneth Young (with Anna Leese)
Libretto by – Georgia Jamieson Emms
Commissioned by – Anna Leese
Conductor – Kenneth Young
Director – Eleanor Bishop 
Production Design –Rachel Marlow and Bradley Gledhill
Costume Designer – Nic Smillie

Katherine Baillie – Anna Leese
Janet Frame – Jayne Tankersley 
Understudy –Georgia Jamieson Emms

Principal Répétiteur – Andrew Crooks
Orchestra – Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
Flowers of the Forest – performed by Phil White, City of Dunedin Pipe Band

Technical & Production Manager – Hemi Wi-Piti
Stage Manager/Company Manager – Lucie Camp
Assistant Stage Manager/Stage Hand – Catherine Grealish
Wigs & Makeup Supervisor – Abi Taylor (AKL)
Wigs & Makeup Artist – Deirdre Fell (CHC)
Lighting Operator – Bradley Gledhill of Filament Eleven 11 Ltd
Artistic Planning Manager – Inge Teunissen
Head of Wardrobe – Sophie Ham (AKL)
Set Construction – Rays Theatrical Services Ltd, Tube Bending Ltd, Plywood R Us Ltd
Lighting Supply – AC Lighting Ltd
AV/SX Supply – White Audio Group
Freight/Loader – Pilot Productions Ltd
Loaders – Southern Lights & Services Ltd (DUD) 

Opera , Theatre ,

Bold and successful production

Review by Marian Poole 15th Oct 2022

A near-capacity house gave full-hearted applause for a truly memorable performance of Ken Young’s opera The Strangest of Angels at the Mayfair last night, with the composer also conducting the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra Players.

The Strangest of Angels is the nurse’s story, performed admirably by soprano Anna Leese. Her charge, Janet Frame, has become a side story, the vehicle through which we watch Nurse Baillie unwind. [More]


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A splendid opening to Arts Festival

Review by Barbara Frame 13th Oct 2022

The first impression is of overwhelming whiteness, suggesting a clinical, therapeutic location. Small lights in a grid pattern on the back wall flicker and shift in a way that could signal the activity of a disordered mind, and white overall lighting adds to the feeling of institutional coldness.

The location is Seacliff Hospital, in 1952. The characters are writer Janet Frame (Jayne Tankersley), scheduled for an operation intended to make her more “normal,”  but likely to destroy her literary creativity, and fictional nurse Katherine Baillie (Anna Leese).
Visual contrast between the two women, who are of similar ages, could hardly be stronger. Baillie’s starched white uniform and cooly professional, authoritative manner reflect the sterile setting. Frame, timid, terrified and easily recognisable from the unruly curls that we already know from photographs and the An Angel at My Table film, cowers in bed in a crumpled nightie.
As the story develops, there is something of a shift in power relations, Ballie’s character development predominating as continued involvement with Frame brings her to acknowledge that she, too, is capable of anguish, and has her own interior conflict between professional responsibility and personal emotion.
The libretto was written by Georgia Jamieson Emms, who describes in the programme notes the experience of writing concise, uncomplicated text for Frame, and adopting a more stream-of-consciousness approach to Baillie’s. Kenneth Young’s score responds directly to the libretto and was written for a 15-strong chamber orchestra, At the beginning, we are treated to a bagpipe introduction. The music, supporting the prevailing anxious, disturbing atmosphere, is often mournful or unsettling, sometimes jazz-influenced, and the singers’ performances reflect their extensive musical experience and strong acting ablity.
The opera’s mental-health theme, with its suggestions of the horrors of last-century psychiatric treatment, isn’t always easy to take, and this is intensified by the box-like set, the relentless concentration on just two tormented characters, and the chamber-opera feel. Interpolations of witty or exasperated text provide occasional contrast and allow the audience to smile, if only for a moment: “How cruel to wind up here!” sings Baillie, who knew Frame at school as a brainy achiever. A note at the back of the programme advises that the distress depicted may be disturbing to some people. No-one who sees it can fail to be affected to some extent. Harrowing, yes – but ultimately, hopeful and positive.
Traditional opera still has and I hope will always have a secure place in the New Zealand music scene, but there’s room for edgy, uncomfortable new works such as this one, and I hope The Strangest of Angels can become a repertoire standard.
Collaboration has clearly been the key to this unusual and remarkable production’s success. Commissioned by Leese, the work owes much to the creative closeness of Emms and Young.  Thanks to the efforts and contributions of New Zealand Opera, Creative New Zealand, the Dunedin Arts Festival, the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, and sensitive, nuanced  direction by Eleanor Bishop, it was a splendid opening to the Arts Festival. The large audience’s sustained applause demonstrated its strong appreciation.


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Profoundly thought-provoking operatic statement challenges preconceptions about opera

Review by Elizabeth Kerr 08th Jun 2022

A skirl of bagpipes opens the new chamber opera The Strangest of Angels, recently premiered in Christchurch. The brief moment locates the work geographically and emotionally, before woodwinds pick up the melody. We’re in the south of our country and the mood is melancholy, full of the nostalgia the pipes convey.

The setting is simple, stark white walls and a geometric pattern that lights up gradually, ominously implying electric circuitry. The bed, with a figure curled defensively under covers, suggests a hospital. And because we already know that writer Janet Frame is one of the two characters, we know who is there, and why. [More]


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Many moments to savour and even more to think about

Review by Tony Ryan 29th May 2022

There comes a point – the interlude before the third and final scene of Kenneth Young’s new opera The Strangest of Angels – when at last the music sings and dances. The orchestra launches into what almost sounds like a reference to the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen which then quickly evolves into a tango of distinctive originality and, musically at least, for the first time in this hour-long opera, real personality. Here at last is the composer of ‘Dance’ (one of my favourite pieces by a New Zealand composer) and ‘Virgen de la Esperanza’. Then, as that final scene progresses the musical invention remains at a notably more significant level of importance than seems evident in the earlier scenes.

Until that point The Strangest of Angels is primarily about the plot, the characters (NZ writer Janet Frame and fictional Seacliff psychiatric nurse Katherine Baillie), the psychology and the stage performances, while the music, both instrumental and vocal, responds to the narrative rather than drives it. In the first two scenes it’s almost as if librettist Georgia Jamieson Emms has written a play that needs no music. Surely the art of the librettist is, to a large extent, to trust in the composer’s ability to drive the emotional and dramatic impetus of an opera; to know what to put into words and what to leave to the music? So, what we have for the most part is recitative-like, predominantly syllabic vocal parts underlined by an instrumental commentary that reflects what is already expressed in the text and the singers’ performances.

These on-stage performances are certainly vocally and dramatically convincing. Anna Leese in particular maintains a full-toned and richly coloured vocal presence and uses both her vocal powers and stage presence to project a convincing and sympathetic character. There are times when the tessitura of her role as nurse Katherine Baillie tends to sit for lengthy periods in the higher range, but that makes the splendour of her lower register all the more dramatically effective when required.

The audience responds readily and audibly to her ability to shift quickly from authoritarian aloofness to sarcastic humour, and her attention to every nuance of the text is consistently fluid and detailed. It’s a performance that, in the end, draws us in and earns our sympathy even if the librettist’s characterisation is ambiguous to some degree. In the earlier scenes we are not always sure if she is more Nurse Ratched-like or more genuinely empathetic to Janet Frame’s predicament.

As real-life New Zealand writer Janet Frame, Jayne Tankersley is given fewer opportunities to develop a compelling character, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with Frame’s reputation and personal story. But she provides a convincing focus for the plot’s exploration of the social attitudes and medical approaches to mental illness in New Zealand in the early 1950s. Tankersley’s focused vocal quality is rather penetrating at times without the vibrato needed to vary her timbre, but perhaps this is the vocal colour that the composer and writer intended for this role.

Tone quality from both orchestra and singers is not helped by the acoustic. Christchurch’s performance venue, The Piano, is known for its opulent and helpful acoustics, but the set for The Strangest of Angels is a (deliberately?) claustrophobic front-stage box that somewhat cancels the spacious aural effect of the open wood-panelled stage. Although this relatively intimate venue was designed primarily for concert-style performances, I have seen several effective theatrical productions here. But with such an enclosed set, and with the fifteen-piece orchestra fitted into the floor space between the front row of seating, the overall acoustic effect emerges as rather dry.

Even so, from a visual point-of-view, the set, with its implied electrotherapy lighting effects and its clever use of a revolving panel for scene changes, along with Eleanor Bishop’s supportive and unobtrusive direction, is very effective indeed.

The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra players respond to Kenneth Young’s kaleidoscopic instrumental music with flair and commitment. Young’s ear for sonority and texture is realised with playing of often virtuosic and dramatic impact, fearlessly attacked with impressive ensemble. I just wish for some moments of respite from the harrowing pain of the opera’s dramatic framework; something musically uplifting that gives us a sense of hope.

At the end, when the hospital equipment is transformed into a typewriter, dramatically we see the light of the successful literary career that Frame pursued after this episode. Should this have also been an opportunity for the music to once again sing with more optimism?

Even so, as I leave the theatre I feel privileged to have witnessed the birth of this newest New Zealand opera, which features many moments to savour and even more for us to think about.


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