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Iris Dreaming: from Page to Stage

Audition OracleWed 26 Apr 2017 @ 10:00

Iris Dreaming: from Page to Stage

Iris Dreaming

Joanne Roughton-Arnold as Iris - Photography by Cathy Pyle


 New Zealand Arts Council Arts Council England

The New Zealand Society    New Zealand Studies Network       Richard Thomas Foundation


Composer - Gillian Whitehead
Librettist - Fleur Adcock
Director - Sara Brodie
Musical Director (London) - Jonathan Hargreaves
Iris - Joanne Roughton-Arnold

In collabortation with the Octandre Ensemble (London) and the New Zealand Trio (Nelson)

Against a backdrop of budget deficits and unrelenting austerity, what does it take to nurture an idea for a new opera and bring it to life on stage? Soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold describes her extraordinary creative journey in bringing Iris Dreaming to audiences on two continents in opposite hemispheres.

Iris Dreaming is a one-act chamber opera for soprano and ten instrumentalists by Dame Gillian Whitehead and Fleur Adcock CNZM OBE. Commissioned by Joanne Roughton-Arnold with funding from Creative New Zealand, the world premiere took place at the  Grimeborn Festival at London’s Arcola Theatre in August 2016, and was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Additional support was provided by the New Zealand Society, the New Zealand Studies Network and the Richard Thomas Foundation. Joanne gave the New Zealand premiere of Iris Dreaming at the  Adam Chamber Music Festival in February in a new orchestration especially written by Gillian Whitehead for the NZ Trio.

The story of Iris Dreaming begins with a chance remark by a colleague in August 2014 when we were discussing opportunities to perform contemporary music in London:

“Commission an opera”, he said, “Commission a one-woman opera”.

My immediate thought was ‘What an incredible idea…” My imagination began to spark and the journey that was to completely consume me for the next two years began.

Who could I approach to bring this unformed idea to life? As a proud New Zealander, I immediately thought of Dame Gillian Whitehead, whose music I had first sung during my postgraduate studies and which has remained a favourite part of my repertoire ever since. Her writing combines European and Māori influences with the soundscape of New Zealand’s flora and fauna to create a musical style that is distinctively New Zealand. But would she be open to the idea? After all, she is one of New Zealand’s leading composers whose works are performed and broadcast all over the world. Why would she choose to work with me?

My first step was to telephone Creative New Zealand to float the idea and ask if I would be eligible to apply for funding for the commission of this new work. After some encouraging words from the advisor at CNZ, I conquered my stage fright and wrote to Gillian Whitehead to ask if she would be interested in writing a one-woman chamber opera for me. When she responded with ‘I love the idea’ (and after picking myself up off the floor in delighted surprise), I realised that this crazy idea might actually have legs.

It suddenly hit home to me that, if I wanted to perform this new work which I was in the process of commissioning, I would also have to take on the roles of fundraiser, producer, and publicist. Clearly I had a steep learning curve ahead of me, and many unfamiliar hats to wear. Never shy of a challenge, I dived in, determined to make it happen. Thankfully I had a wise and patient guide in Gillian who advised me on how to proceed and was always there on the other end of an email with words of encouragement.

We set to work putting the creative team together. Gillian brought Fleur Adcock, her long-time friend and collaborator, on board as librettist. Sara Brodie, one of New Zealand’s leading directors and choreographers, agreed to direct. Holly Mathieson, a young NZ conductor who is making waves in the UK, completed our line-up as musical director. We now had a dream team of New Zealand creative talent, who all just happened to be female. Holly later had to withdraw because of engagements abroad, but was a terrific source of encouragement and moral support throughout the planning stages. Happily, Jonathan Hargreaves stepped into Holly’s shoes - a superb British conductor and specialist in contemporary music, he is co-artistic director of the Octandre Ensemble which played for the world premiere.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Within moments of being asked to write the libretto, Fleur suggested making Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde) the subject of the opera.

Iris’s story was crying out to be turned into an opera. Her short but intensely dramatic life in the early part of the twentieth century took her from New Zealand via war-torn China to London on the brink of WWII. Fleur writes:

“The subject of IRIS DREAMING is the poet and novelist Iris Wilkinson, 1906-1939, who wrote and published her works under the name of Robin Hyde. Her life was an eventful and ultimately tragic one (she died by suicide), but always her lively, adventurous nature and her determination to succeed shone through the illness and depression she had to fight against. Robin Hyde was a star, a significant figure in New Zealand literature and a popular and respected journalist in her time. Her resistance to conventional attitudes also made her a pioneer of feminism. In this piece we try to present the inner compulsions that drove her.”

The artistic juices were flowing...

But I had to ensure that we had funding in place to pay for the commission. With my new producer’s hat firmly on my head I set about the Herculean task of preparing a funding application for Creative New Zealand: gathering supporting letters and putting together a budget for the commission and the anticipated costs of mounting the world premiere at a London festival in 2016. Once we had the good news that Creative New Zealand had approved my application for an Arts Award to cover the cost of the commission, Gillian and Fleur were able to set to work on creating this new opera.

We settled on Iris Dreaming as the title after realising that Iris had already cheekily been taken by Mascagni. Soon, drafts of the libretto began to appear in my inbox, followed by the score - section by section as Gillian built layers of complexity into the work. What an indescribable joy it was to watch this new piece of art evolve!

The whole project felt like a massive roller coaster ride. After the fabulous news about the funding from Creative NZ, we were disappointed to find out that the festival we were hoping to be part of in London was no longer going to take place in 2016. What to do? Certainly not give up! Emails began flying to other festivals in New Zealand. It looked as though we might be able to transfer the world premiere to a NZ-based festival in September 2016, but after we failed to secure funding for the crucial rehearsal period, it became apparent that this avenue was closed to us. Still, I was determined to bring her story to life somehow. After all, I now had the score for Iris Dreaming.

I confess that I shed a tear or two when I sat at the piano and sang through Gillian’s music. I was absolutely bowled over by her setting of Fleur’s beautiful libretto. Gillian included plenty to challenge the singer, with the music ranging from quasi folk writing and spoken text through fully lyric sections to coloratura gymnastics. She even provided a mad scene! I love the musical, intellectual and vocal challenges of contemporary repertoire, but always look for dramatic reasons behind the composer’s decisions. Everything Gillian wrote was there to better express the text and tell Iris Wilkinson's story - Gillian and Fleur had given me the means to become Iris, and all the elements that made her the extraordinary woman she was were clear in the score.

Within a couple of weeks of the frustrating news about the lack of platform for our world premiere, the roller coaster took an even steeper upward turn. Out of the blue, I was contacted by the artistic director of the Grimeborn Festival and offered two performances as part of the 2016 festival. Suddenly we were full steam ahead.

With only five months before the performances, I had to pull out all the stops to find a five-figure sum to meet production costs and bring all the strands together that make an operatic production, without losing focus on my role as singer and the importance of doing justice to this beautiful new work. Gulp.

I spent long nights at my computer tackling the behemoth that is an Arts Council England application. How to fit every answer into the maximum character limit? (The answer is to draft every single answer very carefully… er... and use short words). As ACE will normally only consider funding part of the budget, it is important to have a significant amount of other funding in place in order to have a strong application. I made other funding applications and gave fundraising concerts. I spoke and sang at a symposium on Fleur Adcock’s work and met some extraordinary people along the way, many of them New Zealanders living in the UK who gave generously of their time and money. I was privileged to give a concert at the residence of the NZ High Commissioner in London and am immensely grateful to Sir Lockwood and Lady Alexandra Smith for their support for this project.

I am a firm believer that doors can open in surprising places if you are open to possibilities. This certainly proved true when I met Hilary Timmins at a concert where I spoke about Iris Dreaming. Hilary is a NZ television presenter who has been making Dream Catchers, a television series celebrating New Zealanders who are achieving success globally. A few months later, Hilary filmed us in rehearsal for Iris Dreaming and interviewed me for Dream Catchers.

I followed advice from the Arcola Theatre and appointed an assistant producer to help me bring everything together and take over the role of producer once we were in production rehearsals. Jo Walsh proved to be an absolute godsend - I couldn’t have done it without her! Together we worked out a PR campaign, guided by the fabulous Jane Nicolson of ARTS PR. A press release was written, a social media campaign carefully planned, radio and television interviews arranged. We visited places in London that were significant for Iris, with some surprising discoveries along the way. The address where this extraordinary writer lived and died in London (and where the opera is set) is now the Notting Hill Gate Public Library. Even more astonishing was the realisation that the date of our world premiere would be the anniversary of Iris’s death on 23rd August 1939 - an auspicious but unscripted coincidence. I visited Iris’s grave in Gunnersbury Cemetery; I just wanted to pay her my respects, to lay flowers at her resting place and spend a few quiet moments there. I shed more tears beside that little grave in the corner of the cemetery when I read lines from one of her poems on the tombstone:

These things are writ on the brow
Taken back from time, but now
However still God be,
As quiet is She.

Iris Wilkinsons Grave

Photography by Joanne Roughton-Arnold

After all the to-ing and fro-ing about where the premiere would take place, I was delighted and relieved that Sara Brodie’s busy schedule still allowed her to travel from New Zealand to direct and design our show, and remain very grateful to the NZ Society for funding her travel. We appointed a stage manager (yet another New Zealander) and as soon as Sara arrived in London we spent a busy few days sorting out the costume, set and lighting design. Sara had been working on the concept from the other side of the world with the aid of a plan of the space and my very amateur video footage of the theatre. She didn’t see the theatre in the flesh until about two weeks before we opened!

Jonathan Hargreaves, an honorary New Zealander for the purposes of the project, stepped up to the podium and took the baton as musical director. He brought the sparkling virtuosi of the Octandre Ensemble on board who took in their stride the dramatic role they were asked to play in the opera. The familiar pattern of rehearsal began: first music then production, with piano beautifully played by Marc Verter. To see everything come together in the theatre was a huge thrill.

Jonathan Hargreaves

Jonathan Hargreaves conducting the Octandre Ensemble - Photography by Cathy Pyle

The Arcola Theatre proved a welcoming environment to work in, buzzing with creativity and the comings and goings of artists taking part in the Grimeborn Festival.

Television NZ came to the dress rehearsal and broadcast an item about our project on TVNZ Breakfast the following day - quite a coup in our rugby-obsessed nation!

Emma Keeling interviewing Joanne

Emma Keeling interviewing Joanne Roughton-Arnold for TVNZ Breakfast - Photography by Cathy Pyle

As Iris Dreaming would only be 40 minutes’ duration, we decided to offer the audience something extra each evening. I found a feature-length television film about Iris made in New Zealand in the 1980s. With permission from the producer, we screened this after the world premiere as an interesting alternative telling of Iris’s story. Nick Fowler led a lively panel discussion with the creative team following our second show: “Iris’s Story: from Page to Stage” - an insight into the challenges and joys of bringing Iris’s story to life.

Audiences at both performances showed their enthusiasm with lengthy warm applause. Our second performance was filmed by the Dream Catchers cameraman and is now available to view online:

Iris dreaming - watch the video

The NZ premiere took place in February 2017 at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in a special adaptation for piano trio and soprano. Once again, Sara Brodie directed and adapted the London staging for Nelson’s Theatre Royal, with the NZ Trio on stage and fully involved in the drama. The smaller ensemble meant we had no conductor - certainly challenging as a singing actor to nail musical cues without the security of a conductor’s downbeat. The NZ Trio are known for their superb playing, their sensitivity and their adventurous programming, and it was a real joy to work intensively with them in rehearsal, to create a real chamber opera in every sense of the word. Iris Dreaming was singled out as a highlight of the festival by the Nelson Mail.

“An unforgettable premiere… A superb operatic performance that deserves to be repeated throughout New Zealand”

Margot Hannigan, Nelson Mail

Joanne Roughton-Arnold as Iris   Joanne Roughton-Arnold as Iris

Joanne Roughton-Arnold as Iris - Photography by Cathy Pyle

It was recorded by Radio NZ for broadcast at a later date and filmed for future upload onto (The Centre for New Zealand Music).

While in New Zealand, I had the privilege and absolute joy of spending some time with Iris’s son, Derek Challis, whose early life features in the opera. Derek and his wife came to a rehearsal; to portray his mother in front of him, to share in his emotional reaction and to receive his blessing for the project was an unforgettable privilege that I treasure beyond any review or applause.

For over two years I have eaten, slept and breathed Iris Dreaming, investing huge amounts of energy, time and money into this amazing labour of love. I have met and worked with the most extraordinary colleagues and friends who have believed in this project and given their all to help make it happen.  I am, of course, immensely grateful to my husband for his unwavering support throughout and the many, many cups of lemon & ginger tea he brought to me as I burned the midnight oil! Would I do this all again? YES! Will I commission more new works? Yes, absolutely - funding permitting...

Iris Wilkinson

Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde) - Photograph courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image

What next for Iris Dreaming?

We are actively seeking opportunities for further performances in NZ, the UK and elsewhere. We now have a flexible production that can be performed in venues of varying sizes and facilities, either in the full orchestration or with piano trio. It can be performed fully-staged,  semi-staged or in concert. Iris herself faced so many challenges which resonate in our modern world: addiction, mental illness, loneliness, war, and the compassion and love which light a candle in the dark. I hope that Iris Dreaming will continue to move audiences and inspire a new readership to the work of Robin Hyde.

I think it’s best to let Iris herself have the final word:
“…please mother, don’t let prejudice of any kind stop the publication either of my work if it’s good enough, or of anything whatever about my life if anybody should be interested in it. I have only three deep personal wishes - one for D’s safety and happiness, one that the family should make things up with Edna, and one that when I am dead I should be allowed the truth. My work was the one thing I could do, besides caring for people, and I want that to live, if anything of me lives…”
Iris Wilkinson to her family, 19/5/1938, from Hsuchow
from The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde by Derek Challis & Gloria Rawlinson,
Auckland University Press, 2002


Iris Dreaming on video -

Nelson Mail 
Nelson Mail
Radio NZ Concert
The Observer

Joanne Roughton-Arnold 
Gillian Whitehead 
Fleur Adcock 
Sara Brodie 
Jonathan Hargreaves 

Creative New Zealand
Arts Council England
New Zealand Society
New Zealand Studies Network
Richard Thomas Foundation


Win two tickets to the 2017 International Opera Awards!

Audition OracleTue 18 Apr 2017 @ 10:39

‘Win two tickets to the 2017 International Opera Awards!’

 The International Opera Awards


Would you like to join Audition Oracle and the opera world’s leading lights at the prestigious International Opera Awards Ceremony at the London Coliseum, Sunday 7th May? We have two tickets to give away! To enter the competition simply get in touch by email, Twitter or Facebook and tell us which of the nominees you would most like to see win! 

View all the 2017 nominees:

International Opera Awards

Terms & Conditions 
- Competition closes Thursday 27th April and the winner will be announced shortly afterwards. 
- The competition is only open to residents of United Kingdom ages 18 and over.
- Entry to the competition is free of charge and is not conditional on being a member of Audition Oracle.
- The winner will be contacted by email no later than 2 days from the closing date for confirmation that they accept their prize. Failure to confirm acceptance within 2 days of receipt of the email may result in the prize being forfeited and Audition Oracle choosing to re-run the selection process to choose an alternative winner.
- The prize is non-refundable, non-transferable and no cash alternative will be given.
- The directors, management and employees or contractors of any entity within Audition Oracle and any third party involved in the organisation of the competition, as well as their immediate families, are not entitled to participate.
- The winning entry will be determined by Audition Oracle at random from all eligible and correct entries.
- Failure to comply with the requirements set out in these Terms may result in a winner being disqualified and an alternative winner being chosen in their place.



Ricardo Panela: My relationship with the word 'resilience'

Audition OracleSun 2 Apr 2017 @ 9:00

This week our guest blog post comes from young baritone Ricardo Panela. Read his refreshingly honest account of the determination required to keep going in this rewarding, tough and at times unforgiving business.

Ricardo Panela: My relationship with the word 'resilience'

Ricardo Panela - Baritone

When I was asked by Audition Oracle to write a blog post, I didn't immediately know what I could write about that would be a good addition to all the great previous posts from esteemed colleagues.
However, because the request came as a follow-up of a newspaper review regarding a lecture I did for an audience of non-musicians about Auditions, I thought that it would be good to repackage that in a way that would hopefully be meaningful and helpful for someone else in the profession. That said, I won't bother you with details about auditions and audition tips because, at the end of the day, it's such a personal subject that you just have to take in the feedback of the people around you but then find out what works for you and stick to it.

I will instead talk a little bit about my relationship with the word 'resilience' throughout these 6 years that I've been freelancing in the U.K.

At one point or another in our development, we all come across someone who talks about the importance of being resilient and of staying at it if we really want to pursue a performing career. Initially, and while we're young (and often foolish), we perceive this notion of resilience as meaning that if we want to succeed, we need to be prepared to face everything with a grin and stay in a constantly positive mindset which will hopefully help us overcome obstacles. My experience is that this works for a while when your energy levels are high and you don't have much else to worry about in life. After all, there's no problem with not being successful at one audition because a generous grant or benefactor will keep you going during the month when that production would take place.

While this may be the reality for a very talented and lucky minority, most of us will find ourselves in a position where a missed audition is a missed job and, as such, income which is not going to happen. Besides dealing with the psychological aspect of rejection, we also have to deal with the practicality of unemployment.

Once you've been balancing these things for a while and just generally living a life with all that's good and not-so-good about that, there will come a moment of exhaustion where you simply cannot remain on a positive mindset no matter how hard you try. You go and talk to people and everyone says how privileged you are to have a unique talent and that things will get better, etc., but no piece of well meant advice seems to be enough to fill the void.

In those moments, more than dealing with rejection, we find ourselves dealing with self-doubt: after all, if we're not getting work, it surely means we're not good enough. Never mind being rational and realising we're trying to make a living in an ever-dwindling market which is only really profitable once you've secured a place on the A-league. The point is that these feelings of doom and gloom naturally overtake the rational part of our thinking and, in all honesty, making music (and singing in particular) is such a personal process that you can't simply ignore there will be an emotional side involved in everything you do.

With this in mind, how does one make the concept of resilience work? How does one manage to have a rational approach while simultaneously trying to shake off all the negative feelings which seem, at times, overwhelming?

The bad news is: I don't really know.

I could just enumerate a few platitudes which you'll be likely to read in any self-help book: stay strong, stay focused, think of all the difficult moments you overcame and how you felt back then, etc. This is all true but not really easy to implement if you're finding yourself incapable of fighting off these negative feelings.

Why not, then - for a change - to stop trying to fight them and allow yourself to fully experience the negative emotions which adversity inevitably brings?

From my experience, I find that trying to force myself into a positive mindset under difficult circumstances is not only unnatural, but ultimately exhausting. It forces you to try your hardest to make your body react in a way that feels contrary to the situation at hand because your subconscious is clever enough to figure out it's being conned by your conscious mind.

On the other hand (and please bear in mind that is nothing more than my personal experience and how my brain is wired), I find that allowing myself the time and space to feel terrible while slowly trying to defuse what triggered the crisis and combing through the situation at a rhythm which isn't faster than my body can take at the moment, really helps me to shift things back into place.

By allowing myself the time and space to react naturally to things, I allow my brain to experience what it needs to experience and to process what it needs to process in a way that's natural and adequate to the current situation. We're only talking about brain substances such as endorphins and serotonin in the end, and while you obviously need to keep a watchful eye and make sure the situation isn't dragging for longer than it should, the concentration of the brain substances will slowly re-balance itself and gradually allow you to objectively assess the situation.

I find that after a while, this shifts my brain back into 'problem-solving' mode and enables me to go and find solutions to what has now become a clear question.

This is what resilience is for me: the ability and the willpower to constantly solve problems in a way that is natural to who you are.

There are obviously other things you can do to help yourself a little bit. For me, during a recent and quite tricky patch of the road, it was to take a week off singing and whenever I felt I needed to make music, I found piano scores on Scribd of famous big tunes from movies that I've always liked (OK, the character themes from all the Star Wars movies...) and launched into playing them at the piano. Now, mind you, my piano skills aren't great but then again, the point of that music making wasn't to achieve technical proficiency but to simply experience music in a context completely free of professional pressure.

Treating ourselves with kindness may seem like a challenge at times, but at the end of the day we experience so much strain and difficult circumstances on a daily basis as part of our jobs, that we owe ourselves the kindness we'd show others in the same situation.

Ricardo Panela, baritone

Born in Aveiro - Portugal, Ricardo has distinguished himself for his interpretation of the florid baritone Bel Canto roles, deemed beguilingly sonorous, a technical tour-de-force and mesmerising by different music publications. The 2015 - 2016 season saw Ricardo debut to critical acclaim at his home country’s National Opera House in Lisbon, in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites. Previous career highlights have included the London premieres of Saverio Mercadante’s Don Chisciotte at Leighton House Museum and of Federico Ruiz’s Los Martirios de Colón at the Southbank Centre. The current season will see Ricardo debut at Opera Holland Park as Masetto in the company's Young Artist production of Don Giovanni. Ricardo is also a two-time bursary recipient of The International Opera Awards Foundation, who have generously supported him for the last 2 years. Ricardo studied in Portugal with Juracyara Baptista and António Salgado, and in the United Kingdom with Laura Sarti and Dennis O'Neill, and sang in masterclasses with artists such as Sir John Tomlinson, Montserrat Caballé, Teresa Berganza, Della Jones or Nelly Miricioiu.