Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Opera based on Janet Frame's THE RAINBIRDS


Excerpts from an opera based on Janet Frame's novel The Rainbirds (also known as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room), were previewed last month in New York at the Roulette theatre in Brooklyn.

Experiments in Opera presented selections from Rainbird, a work-in-development between EiO co-founder Aaron Siegel and director, Mallory Catlett, based on the work of author Janet Frame.

The songs from Rainbird set the scene for another work called The Nubian Word for Flowers.

New York Times reviewer Zachary Woolf wrote in response:

“Everyone will now be too far away,” a character quietly sings in Aaron Siegel’s new “Rainbird.” It’s a softly shattering summary of what death does.

That line stuck in my mind during the work that followed excerpts from “Rainbird” on the program Thursday evening at Roulette in Brooklyn: “The Nubian Word for Flowers,” a new opera by Pauline Oliveros left unfinished when she died, just over a year ago. ....

Mr. Siegel’s “Rainbird” is an artful, short chamber-opera rumination inspired by the author Janet Frame. The vocal lines unite pop simplicity, medieval-style incantation and a singsong spoken style borrowed from Robert Ashley. With its central figure a man who finds himself stranded between life and death, it set the mood for the warmly felt haunting that was “The Nubian Word for Flowers.”

~ New York Times, December 2, 2017, Page C5

You can read a fascinating conversation between the composer and director of Rainbird at the Experiments in Opera website. Here is an excerpt:

Collaborators Aaron Siegel (composer) and Mallory Catlett (director) have been exploring the work of Janet Frame, and particularly the novel ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room’ as they make a new opera together. They have worked together and with performers to shape Frame’s writing into performance and have encountered a range of questions and opportunities along the way. They sat down in advance of a workshop performance of scenes from the opera on November 30th at Roulette to discuss aspects of their working process and some of the ideas that are embedded in the source materials for their new opera ‘Rainbird.’

CATLETT: When I was working in graduate school, I was also studying with a literary professor there who happened to teach Frame. He was a post-colonial scholar. I was working with this French philosopher named Hélène Cixous, and we were doing this reading of her philosophy of Frame’s work, which he had never done. So it was pretty extensive.

And I think it had a lot to do with what I was really drawn to. And so applying that sort of philosophic framework on the writing was the way in which I understood why the writing was important, and what I was going to do.

I was listening to the radio one day, and it was some piece of music that was telling the Orpheus and Eurydice story. I think it was the Monteverdi, but I don’t know. I just had this image, and knew I was going to do a piece about Orpheus and Eurydice. And then the more I learned about Orpheus, I wondered I how could wade into that story without reproducing those gendered dynamics of the myth.

And at the same time, I was just reading Frame, and her work is extremely Eurydic and Orphic. It has lush poetry that takes you over. But it also has this kind of cyclical death pattern that’s constantly running through it. And it’s all over the novel.

SIEGEL: How do you see the Orpheus myth of playing out in ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room?” Because Godfrey is sort of an Orphic character, and yet there’s not a sense of him being the poet.

CATLETT: I think this book is very Orphic because, in the last part of the myth after Eurydice dies a second time, Orpheus is actually ripped apart by these Bacchanalia women, and he becomes an oracle. He gets more dangerous because he has had this experience. He becomes more of a threat and so he is destroyed. ‘Yellow Flowers’ is much more about this part of the myth, about how the culture turns away and has to destroy the thing it is afraid of.

I’ve never really been that interested in myth. I’ve never been that interested in Greek theatre, but I think a lot of my earlier work with Frame was really understanding what myth is in a different way.

Coming back to Hélène Cixous, she describes myth as trying to find the point of origin of all of these moments. In Orpheus you have this quintessential relationship of a man and a woman, where she’s always behind. He has to look back. So the question is: how does one subvert myths or change them at the root?

Cixous has a great way of reinterpreting Adam and Eve, which is that the knowledge is actually in the taste of the fruit, and that women have always been the ones that sought out the knowledge despite the risk. But it’s actually in the sensual kind of taste, and in the smell. And Adam is much more about prohibition and law. Like the policing of that stuff. When you go all the way back, then you can begin to unravel it on your own terms, which is what I think Frame is very much doing. I guess I’m much more of a seeker like this somehow. It feels a little bottomless sometimes, for me.

SIEGEL: I really appreciate the fact that in this collaboration, we can help and challenge each other in those ways, to see things differently and also to attend to the ways each other are seeing them. And the challenge of composing is always “what are people actually going to do?” You have to prescribe that in some ways if it’s going to have its own identity. I try to find that balance between setting things down in structurally immovable ways and letting the performers have some ownership of their material. I think that’s why composers get a bad rap, because of the sense that they’re inflexible. But trying to figure out how to attend to the form and also give space for the collaboration to feed into the process is really interesting.

CATLETT: Directors have that same sort of rap too. I think we’re both actually sensitive to that. I think we’re both aware of our power, and I think we share a skepticism about its necessity and danger. There was a point in my creative life where I realized that if I want performers to be invested, I have to do things that will undermine my authority.

(November 18, 2017)

The Nubian Word for Flowers; A Phantom Opera / Rainbird
Premiere of The Nubian Word for Flowers by Pauline Oliveros & IONE;

Scenes from Rainbird by Aaron Siegel & Mallory Catlett.

Thursday, November 30, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

 RAINBIRD: Chamber Opera Adaptations of a Janet Frame novel co-produced with Experiments in Opera. Composer Aaron Siegel with singers Gelsey Bell and Justin Hicks.
Gelsey Bell – Voice
Justin Hicks – Voice
Jade Hicks – Voice
Andie Springer – Violin
Aaron Siegel – Percussion
Matt Evans – Percussion
Mallory Catlett – Director

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dunedin Literary Walking Tours

Explore Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature with a knowledgeable guide.
Beverly Martens escorts a daily campus walking tour (10.30am start) as well as a city walking tour (2pm start).

For more info see the website:



Sunday, December 10, 2017

Anna Toscano on Janet Frame (in Italian)

Anna Toscano reads a poem in Italian by Janet Frame from the new book Parleranno Le Tempeste, published by Gabriele Capelli Editore (2017) and translated by Francesca Benocci and Eleonora Bello, in 'Janet Frame e le tempeste che parleranno' La Rivista
 Intelligente, 5 October 2017. The poem is 'The icicles'.

 'Janet Frame: la vita negli oggetti' by Anna Toscano, Doppiozero, 12 June 2017

'Scampoli di vite, Anna Toscano at Festival dei matti, Venice, 26 May 2017.

Anna Toscano, 'Polaroid del ricordo, Janet Frame' La Rivista Intelligente, 22 July 2013


New US edition of Janet Frame's autobiography

A new American edition of Janet Frame's complete 3-volume autobiography was published this year.
An Angel at My Table
Counterpoint Press 2017
List Price: US $24.95 
608 Pages
ISBN 9781619027886

The Sargeson Swerve

In September and October this year there was an exhibition called ‘The Sargeson Swerve: A Literary Life on Esmonde Road’ on at the Depot Artspace in Devonport. This was part of the Auckland Heritage Festival 2017.


Writer Frank Sargeson lived at 14 Esmonde Road from 1931 until his death in 1982.
Here, he created a literary oasis where writers lived, worked and partied.
It has been said that this was where New Zealand literature was born.
Once located in a quiet backwater, the little fibrolite bach on Esmonde Road was later overrun by a congested onramp for the Auckland Harbour Bridge from the 1950's.

Using artefacts such as the quilt made for Sargeson by Janet Frame, paintings of the bach interior by Graham Downs, sculpture, film, images and writing, this exhibition examines Sargeson’s influence on the development of New Zealand literature played out against the backdrop of Esmonde Road and the expanding city.
Even after Frank’s death the story continued. During later road widening, allowance had to be made for Frank’s ashes scattered in the front garden of the house.
This was known to the traffic engineers as ‘The Sargeson Swerve’.

Audiobook of Janet Frame's last novel

Winner: AudioFile Earphones Award 2017

Released this year by Bolinda: an audiobook of the last published novel of Janet Frame. Her 13th novel is a sparkling and readable social comedy, among other things. It's also a very clever parody of a variety of literary styles - see if you can detect which authors or literary movements she is paying homage to in a series of set pieces. It's also a sharp satire on literary hangers-on and on those who revel in exploiting posthumous reputations, which is rather interesting isn't it, for a book that was itself published posthumously?

The narrator is Humphrey Bower and the text is unabridged, taking 4 hours and 38 minutes to read.

ISBN: 9781489399687 
Genres: Fiction; Literary Fiction
Available worldwide in a variety of formats.
More about In the Memorial Room here:

Bolinda also has in stock the audiobook of Janet Frame's FIRST novel Owls Do Cry - a bestselling title for them. See details here.

A third Janet Frame audiobook available from Bolinda is her "lyrical, evocative" novel Towards Another Summer that became an instant favourite around the world after it was first published in 2007.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

There's Another Street Named for Janet Frame

I just recently learned that the 'Janet Frame Way' in the Hutt Valley, that is off Katherine Mansfield Drive, is not the only street in New Zealand named after Janet Frame. There is one in the Waikato too.

I've only had a quick look at Google Maps, but it seems that most of the streets in Leamington, Cambridge (a town in the Waikato district of New Zealand) are named after writers, both foreign and local. Frame Street, named after Janet Frame, lies between Tennyson and Carlyle, parallel to Browning.

Other Kiwi authors that are name checked, include: Sargeson Place, Knox Place, Glover Street, Mansfield Street, Ihimaera Terrace, Fairburn Place, Mahy Way, Hilliard Place, Grace Avenue and Dallas Place.

Janet Frame's Reprieve is a True Story

There are so many outrageous and fanciful myths told about Janet Frame.
People just seem to make up a new one every week.
But one unlikely tale is in fact true.
Janet Frame was misdiagnosed at the age of 21.
The incorrect label of 'schizophrenia' was attached to her through a misunderstanding and due to an incompetent medical establishment that took the word of an arrogant psychology postgrad student (her tutor) who was engaged in an emotional relationship with Janet Frame.
She became institutionalized and after years of abuse and unhappiness
she was scheduled for a lobotomy.
The book she had written before she entered the hospital system was finally published after the alcoholic editor who had accepted it but had sat on it for five years,
left that firm.
It was a book of brilliant short stories, published in March 1952, and not unexpectedly it won the major New Zealand literary prize for fiction,
The Hubert Church Award,
administrated by P.E.N.
Meanwhile, though, Janet Frame, languishing in despair,
was days away from a brain operation to try to make her 'normal'.
Medical staff thought she hallucinated. She didn't.
They thought she was delusional. She wasn't.
She was just more brilliant than anyone they had ever encountered.
She was a genius.
For most of the people around her, it was odd to even read a book let alone claim to have written one.
She may as well be speaking Martian to them.
The really mad people knew she was not one of them
(she told me this).
She also told me there were other people trapped in the hospital system,
like herself, who were not insane either, for example:
rejected wives who were surplus to requirements,
whose husbands committed them so they could be free to divorce them;
young promiscuous women who were an embarrassment to their families;
people with intellectual disabilities who would remain in the community today.
Anyway, just days away from the date of the operation,
the news of the book prize was published in the country's newspapers.
Janet Frame's doctor, Geoffrey Blake Palmer, read it, and suddenly realized that she might be better left as she was.
Janet Frame's cousin May Williamson clipped out the notices that week,
Christmas season 1952, and carefully kept them.
Thanks to her family sending me this scan,
we can see what the notice that the doctor read looked like:
The Press release was dated Wednesday the 24th of December 1952,
and it was published in the NZ Herald on Friday the 26th of December.
Frame's mother had been manipulated into signing a consent form for the lobotomy on the 20th of December. The letter she was sent did not fully explain what was to happen.
Frame's operation was scheduled for a few days later.
Frame's doctor read the news item and cancelled the operation.
All true.
"My writing saved me," said Janet Frame.

Friday, December 8, 2017

OWLS DO CRY 60th Anniversary 1957~2017

 Janet Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry was published in 1957, making this its 60th Anniversary. There are three current English language print editions of Owls Do Cry:  the Australasian one (Text Classic 2014), the UK/Commonwealth one (Virago Modern Classic 2015), and the American one (Counterpoint Press 2016). There is also an audio book available in several formats (produced by Bolinda).

Owls Do Cry is as fresh and relevant as ever, according to this marvellous review by Neil Hegarty in the Irish Times and the illuminating introduction written by Margaret Drabble.

Here are just some of the other covers of translated editions and older English language editions:

A Fine Stock of Janet Frame Books

This photo of a fantastic pile of Janet Frame books - mostly American editions - was tweeted by Unity Books Auckland sometime in July 2017.

Clearly this is is one of the great New Zealand bookshops!

(Some new New Zealand editions are coming soon guys!)
Buy books for Christmas and support your local bookstore!

From their web site:
19 High Street
Auckland 1010
Ph. 09 307 0731


Monday-Friday 8.30am – 7pm
Saturday 9am – 6pm
Sunday 10am – 6pm

In 1989 Jo McColl and Nigel Cox (dearly loved, sadly departed) were given free rein by Alan Preston, then owner of Unity Books, to interpret the Auckland market. In Nigel’s immortal words:
If bookshops are compared to a summer’s day, which one comes up smelling of roses? If bookshops were horticulturalists, which one knows its onions? If small is beautiful, Unity is still very attractive. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, meet me by the philosophy shelves. If Dorothy Parker shopped at Unity, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Every Day is Poetry Day


If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have noticed that my posts haven't been regular lately.That is partly because there is now the Janet Frame Facebook page for news flashes (if there are any), but also because other matters have been more pressing.

As you can see, in the past few days I've been processing some old drafts that I hadn't got around to posting, and some of them are not fresh news. Here for instance is a striking photo taken way back in August 2016 (!), that I had intended to use to promote Poetry Day that year. 

I am more than a bit late putting it up, but because I like the green colour of the wall, here is the photo, with a reminder that for those of us who love poetry, every day is poetry day.

Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day

Reprint of children's anthology of NZ poetry


I'm really glad to see this gorgeous book back on the market. Reissued just last week, it is well timed for the perfect Christmas gift for families.

"An award-winning collection of the best New Zealand poems for children, edited by star New Zealand poet Paula Green and illustrated inventively by Jenny Cooper. Winner of a Storylines Notable Non-Fiction Award 2015."

A Treasury of New Zealand Poems for Children edited by Paula Green, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, published by Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2017.
ISBN : 9780143772194
NZ $40.00

There are two Janet Frame poems included, and all is beautifully illustrated by Jenny Cooper.

I blogged about the first edition, published in 2014, here.

Here is a lovely news report highlighting the work that editor Paula Green does in bringing the love of poetry to young people in schools.