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The Strangest of Angels, by Dunedin composer Kenneth Young, is a poignant and imaginative reflection on events during Janet Frame’s time at Seacliff, and is a harrowing and hopeful experience that throws light on mental health, then and now.
It is a psychological drama which references Frame’s unhappy experiences at Seacliff Mental Hospital, but Mr Young was quick to point out it was not an opera about Frame.
Mr Young said the nature of mental health, both then and now, was a very strong and important topic he, libretto-writer Georgia Jamieson Emms, and the performers wanted to draw attention to.
"Creating that palette and atmosphere to go with an at-times stark and harrowing libretto, was a welcome challenge."
As a means of research, they toured Frame’s home in Oamaru and the former Seacliff Mental Hospital.
"You gain a glimpse of her environment as she was growing up.
"Having read her books, plus her autobiography and Michael King’s excellent biography, this provided a unique source of inspiration for Georgia and myself."
The pair sensed oppressive gloom visiting Seacliff: “It’s a horrible place. The negative energy is tangible,” he said.
The 50-minute opera is broken up into three scenes, separated by short orchestral interludes, performed by a 15-piece ensemble.
"The reactions have been encouraging. Some found it harrowing, others riveting and a very compelling piece of theatre," he said.
The October shows are part of the Dunedin Arts Festival and are co-presented with NZ Opera. It will also feature the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.