2016 Music

Iris dreaming

Opera, Voice and instrumental ensemble

One act opera for soprano and chamber ensemble

Text by Fleur Adcock

Iris dreaming was commissioned and premiered by soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold. The first performance was accompanied by the Octandre Ensemble conducted by Jon Hargreaves, at the Grimeborn Festival in London in August 2016. The version with string trio was premiered with Joanne and NZTrio at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson on 6 February 2017.

About the work

Iris dreaming is based on the life of celebrated New Zealand writer and feminist, Iris Wilkinson (also know as Robin Hyde), whose short but intensely dramatic life took her from New Zealand via war-torn China to London on the brink of WWII where she killed herself in 1939, aged 33. She was a star, a significant figure in New Zealand literature, a respected journalist in her time and a pioneer of feminism.

Fiona Maddocks in her review for The Guardian noted, ‘Whitehead … mixes tonal and melodic writing with Māori and Pacific rim-inspired techniques, especially audible in music for flute and piccolo, or more overtly in the gentle, clattery wash of rainsticks.’


Lyric coloratura soprano and a chamber ensemble of flute doubling piccolo, oboe, clarinets (B♭, E♭ and bass), bassoon, harp, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass.

There is also a version for soprano and piano trio.


The score will soon be available from SOUNZ.


Films of performances both versions of the opera are available online.

Iris dreaming, London, August 2016 — video

Iris dreaming, Nelson, New Zealand, February 2017 — video

RNZ Concert’s recording of the New Zealand premiere in February 2017 is available online.

Iris dreaming — audio

Reviews and interviews

The Waitangi Day performance in Nelson in 2017 was reviewed in the Nelson Evening Mail.

Opera Iris Dreaming tells tragic life of New Zealand writer Robin Hyde — Nelson Evening Mail

A review by Elizabeth Kerr of the Nelson performances was broadcast by RNZ Concert on Upbeat.

Adam Chamber Music Festival Waitangi weekend reviews — talk

Joanne was interviewed for Kim Hill’s programme on RNZ National.

Joanne Roughton-Arnold: Iris Dreaming — interview

There is also an interview with Joanne and me, filmed before the Nelson performances.

Festival conversations: Iris dreaming — interview

Bryan Crump interviewed me on RNZ National’s Nights programme shortly after my return from the premiere in London.

Dame Gillian Whitehead — interview

Three Sephardic Songs

Voice and instrumental ensemble

3 Yiddish songs for mezzo and baroque ensemble

Texts: anonymous

The first performance of Three Sephardic Songs was given by Ana Good (mezzo) with Rare Byrds at a central Dunedin music venue called Dog with Two Tails in 2016.

About the work

The songs are:

  • Schluf mein Tochter — a lullaby
  • Leg ich mir mein Kapele  — what happens when I lay my head beside that of first my mother, then my mother-in-law, and finally my husband, and
  • Zum, zum — a nonsense song.


The work is scored for: 2 recorder players — playing descant, alto, tenor and bass — guitar, spinet, violin, bass viol.

The instrumentation is not set — you can substitute appropriate instruments.


Contact me to see the score.