Bride of Fortune


Opera in 2 acts for soprano, tenor, 2 baritones, and 10 smaller roles doubling as chorus, accompanied by a 17-piece ensemble

Libretto by Anna Maria dell’Oso

Bride of Fortune was commissioned by West Australia Opera and the Perth Festival. It was first performed in a 4-night season at the Octagon Theatre during the 1991 Perth Festival. Performers included the WASO Ensemble and singers  Merlyn Quaife (Grazia), Geoffrey Harris (Vito), and Emma Mathews in perhaps her first professional role as Grazia’s sister Fiorina.

About the work

Bride of Fortune is set in Calabria and Sicily in Italy, and Melbourne in Australia in the early 1950s. It’s a work about immigration from Europe to the New World after the war, about the importance of letters in a pre-computer age and about the difference between the different cultures.

The opera opens with the main character, Grazia, writing a letter in her Collingwood, Melbourne flat to her sister — her story is told in flashback.

In Calabria, Grazia is with her sisters preparing for her arranged marriage to Vito, who lives in Melbourne and whom she has never met. (This was common practice at that time, until Australian law put a stop to the practice around 1952.) The marriage takes place, with Vito represented by his photo. She has the ring to take to him, celebrations follow and, as she is leaving by ship from Naples, she argues with her brother Ennio about her land that she refuses to sell to him. On the ship she writes a letter to her husband-to-be, imagining their life together.

In Melbourne, things are very different from her expectations. Vito is crippled from an accident in the brewery where he works, and he is living in the shabby flat of a friend, Mario. Grazia takes a job in a textile factory, and Vito becomes jealous of Mario when he playfully flirts with Grazia. In Sicily, Vito’s mother-in-law has received a ticket so that his young daughter from his previous marriage can join him in Melbourne, and Grazia, unaware of this, comes across a box containing the child’s clothing.

Things unravel quickly from this point. Vito, fuelled with jealousy, challenges Mario, who refuses to fight him, Grazia loses her factory job, Ennio sells Grazia’s land, Vito gambles and loses Grazia’s pay, they argue, Vito hits Grazia and she runs out of the flat sobbing.

Some days later he receives a letter telling him his daughter, still in Sicily, has died of tuberculosis. He is very drunk when Grazia comes to collect her belongings with some friends from the factory. A letter from Fiorina has arrived — she has sold her own land and can pay for Grazia’s return to Italy. As the women rejoice, Vito, anguished, pulls out a knife and holds it to Grazia’s throat.

The flat is surrounded by police and a priest is begging Vito to give himself up. Vito shows Grazia a photo of his dead child. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she asks. ‘If I had told you, would you have come?’ The police burst in and seeing Vito threatening them with a knife, they shoot him. Grazia places the wedding ring on his finger as he dies.

Grazia is finishing her letter to Fiorina as another immigrant family are looking to rent the flat. Grazia is pregnant. She will stay in Australia to provide a better life for her child, and hopes Fiorina will come and join her. ‘Life is hard here, but we can live.’


The score is written for 13 singers, who, except for the 2 main roles, cover many roles between them, both as soloists and ensemble singers.

The orchestration is: flute, oboe, clarinet and saxophone (1 player), horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, 2 pianos, piano accordion and 2 violins, violas, cellos and double basses.

One musician could play percussion and piano, and a cast member could play the simple accordion part.

Production notes

Some use is made of recorded sound — for example, street sounds, crowd sounds, water, wind — and the Perth production also used slides in the shipboard scenes.

Score and recording

Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ.

Bride of fortune — SOUNZ


A review of the Perth season by Noel Sanders was published in Music in New Zealand.

The Bride of Fortune: Gillian Whitehead at Perth — publication

A thesis by Anne Power about opera in Australia from 1988-1998 discusses this opera.

Voice identity — publication

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

Mate Ururoa

Works with taonga pūoro, Opera

For baritone, mezzo and large ensemble

Text in Māori and English by the composer

Commissioned by and written for baritone, David Tahere. The premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York was scheduled for November 2021 but has been postponed because of Covid.

About the work

During World War 1, Roger Dansey, of Te Arawa, a captain in the pioneer battalion, disobeys his commander’s orders to save the lives of his men. The piece explores the differences between Māori and European approaches to war.

‘Kaua e mate wheke, mate ururoa — don’t die like an octopus, die like a hammerhead shark’ was a saying used in the Dansey family.


Mate Ururoa is scored for baritone and an ensemble of taonga pūoro, flute doubling alto flute and piccolo, clarinet  doubling E flat and bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, violin, viola, cello and double bass.

Percussion instruments are: marimba, vibraphone, 2 timpani, rototoms, bass drum, wood blocks, wooden drum, metal chimes, 5 suspended cymbals, tamtam, thundersheet, stones and poi.

Scores and recordings

The score will be available from SOUNZ after the premiere performance.


Elizabeth Kerr wrote about this work in a blog celebrating my 80th birthday.

Gillian Whitehead at 80 — publication

Outrageous Fortune


Opera in 2 acts for kuia, soprano, 2 mezzo-sopranos, 2 high baritones, 8 smaller roles also doubling as chorus, and 15-piece ensemble

Libretto by Christine Johnston

Outrageous Fortune was commissioned, with funding from Creative New Zealand, by Otago Commemorative Opera Group, Te Atamira Whakamaumahara, to commemorate the sesquicentenary of the founding of the city of Dunedin and the province of Otago in 1848. The first performance was given on 29 September 1998 at the Trust Bank Theatre, Dunedin, conducted by Michael Joel.

About the work

The action is set on the Otago goldfields in 1862, and weaves together fictionalised dramatisations of true stories of Māori, European pakeha and Chinese living on the goldfields. Each act lasts for approximately 65 minutes.


The cast consists of 16 singers:

  • Rona, soprano
  • Marama, traditional chant and karanga
  • Rani, high baritone
  • Hoani, high baritone
  • Bess, mezzo
  • Maryann, mezzo
  • Rosie, soprano
  • Lily, mezzo
  • Daisy, mezzo
  • Charlie/Mick, tenor
  • Timmy, tenor
  • Tommy, baritone
  • Paddy, bass
  • Joe, baritone
  • 2 Chinese male singers

The first 6 roles are soloists, 4 of which are Māori. The remainder are primarily ensemble singers, although they have substantial solo work at times.


The opera is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, double bass and taonga pūoro (2 players).

In the Dunedin production, 2 dancers were included, as well as an on-stage fiddler. The role of the fiddler, depending on the distance between the stage and the orchestra pit, can be undertaken by a player from the ensemble.

Scores and recordings

The score, parts and a recording of the first performance are available from SOUNZ.

Outrageous Fortune — SOUNZ

Outrageous Fortune — CD


Suzanne Court and Jenny McLeod wrote articles for Music in New Zealand after the premiere.

Music in New Zealand No. 34 — publication


Outrageous Fortune won the 1999 SOUNZ Contemporary Award. Critic William Dart described the work as ‘a rich score, very much the fruit of Whitehead’s openness.’ He presented her with the 1999 SOUNZ Contemporary Award at the APRA Awards.

SOUNZ Contemporary Award

The Art of Pizza


Opera for 2 sopranos, mezzo, high tenor, 8 or 9 singers doubling small roles and chorus, accompanied by 14-piece ensemble

Libretto by Anna Maria dell’Oso

The Art of Pizza was commissioned by Chamber Made Opera with funding from the Australia Council.

About the work

The Art of Pizza is about money, the corporate world and greed. It is set in a shopping mall in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta in the early 1980s, at a time when there was still a significant Italian population based there as Asian immigrants were moving into the area. The story focuses on 3 women. Gina, an Italian woman whose husband has left her, runs a struggling pizza joint. Rosie, a Cambodian refugee is her volatile cook. She also works at night as an office cleaner and with her fellow cleaners gambles on the stock exchange with information gleaned from the office rubbish bins to raise money for her daughter’s higher education. Thida, her daughter, is still at school and works part-time in the mall’s supermarket.

The pizza joint is taken over by a pizza franchise, but Rosie continues to make her unorthodox pizzas rather than following the approved recipes. Gina falls for her contact in the pizza world, then her ex returns, now reformed — he has seen the light. And Rosie, haunted by her memories of the Pol Pot years, gambles with her employer’s money.

Written as an opera, but with rather too complex a story line, this piece would work well as a musical by retaining the songs, converting the recitative to dialogue and conveying the Cambodian back story in film, with traditional Cambodian musicians, rather than text, evoking the flashbacks.


The Art of Pizza is scored for: flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon; horn, trumpet (C), trombone; percussion (2), harp; violins (2), viola, cello and double bass. Tape of electronic sounds also required.


Borrow the score from SOUNZ.

The Art of Pizza — SOUNZ

The king of the other country


Chamber opera in 2 acts for soprano, baritone, 6 singers in minor roles accompanied by chamber orchestra

Libretto by Fleur Adcock

The king of the other country was written for the students of the Sydney Conservatorium Opera School and first performed by them with Jane Manning (soprano), Geoffrey Chard (baritone) and the Flederman Ensemble conducted by Myer Fredman.

About the work

Somewhere in Britain, Isabel is sitting in the garden of her isolated cottage on a long, hot summer evening, singing a lullaby to her daughter. Her husband comes and admonishes her. It is dangerous to sit out alone at night. A year ago he had met this strange man, who, it’s said, might be the king of the other country.

Isabel considers this nonsense, but her mother supports her husband. Isabel asks her sister to sit in the garden with her, but, tiring of her chatter, sends her back inside. Alone in the garden, singing to her baby in her cradle, she is approached by a distinguished man and his gentleman attendant, who, after some conversation, reveal their true identities. ‘I am the king of the other country, and you are coming to be my bride.’ The king sweeps her off her feet and abducts her to the other country.

After a night spent in lovemaking in the other country, Isabel asks the king if she can return to visit her daughter. The king agrees, but she must wear a golden cloak to keep her safe. After she returns home, she eventually comes to realise that it is not one night that has passed, but many years …


The 2 major roles for soprano and baritone were written for professional singers. The minor roles are for 2 tenors, 4 sopranos and 2 mezzo-sopranos. Singers in minor roles also double as chorus, and some of the solo parts can be doubled.


This work is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet in B flat, clarinet in E flat, bass clarinet, trombone, piano/celesta/harpsichord, piano/chamber organ, harp, timpani, percussion (3 players) and strings.


Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ.

The king of the other country — SOUNZ