The subject of Songs and Dances of Desire, this new performance piece with music by Auckland Philharmonia composer-in-residence Jack Body, is Carmen Rupe, drag queen extraordinaire, champion of gay rights and one-time mayoral candidate, who died in 2011. She evidently saw herself in the operatic figure of Carmen, and Body’s work is sprinkled with appropriations from Bizet’s opera. This is combined with settings of “unfeminine” texts by women poets translated into Spanish and Maori. A work that has apparently been 23 years in the making, it is scored for full orchestra, three solo singers, guitar solo and dancer. The Auckland Town Hall was decked out in cabaret-style table seating in the stalls with a catwalk extending out into the audience.

Musically, Body has drawn from an extensive range of influences in order to present this tribute to Carmen. As mentioned, Bizet features prominently, along with gamelan, Richard Strauss, disco, Hawaiian hula and traditional Maori music. A piece such as this could easily become a hodge-podge but Body has the skill of making these different musical styles sound almost as though they are organically born from one another. An example is the movement “Salome’s Dance”, in which Strauss’ famous orchestral showpiece transmogrified into a Middle Eastern belly dance via some Spanish guitar solos (played with great panache by Norio Sato). Throughout, the Bizet and dance segments were beautifully contrasted with the soulful vocal movements.

Re-orchestrated solo arias for Carmen from Bizet’s opera were assigned to Chinese countertenor Xiao Ma. Body’s orchestration had something of a film music gloss to it – extra wind solos and some Latin-inspired rhythms made it seem almost like Bizet filtered through a Hollywood prism. Unfortunately, apart from a wordless vocalise of the Habanera’s main tune, languorously sensual in both tone and phrasing, he gave quite an uneven performance. While the voice has a certain androgynously sexual quality in the firmer lower register, the high notes sounded tremulous and unsupported. Intonation was also inconsistent. The programme note suggests he has sung both Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro and Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia on stage – it’s hard to imagine his voice suiting either of these roles.

It was announced that Anna Pierard had a throat infection but would sing anyway; one of her solo movements was omitted. The voice was certainly in a fragile state but her solos were mostly focused in the lower part of her voice, which was rich and full despite her illness. Indeed, in her first solo she gave the best performance I think I have heard from her. It was darkly expressive, bringing deep emotional nuance to the text “Reduce me to ashes, like a black sun”. Later on, the voice seemed to flag; luckily, there was almost more spoken declamation than song in her later movements. The word settings in Maori were performed by Mere Boynton with great intensity and richness of tone.

What would a tribute to a drag queen be without a performer in drag? We got this in the form of dancer Jason Moore. He was called upon to do everything from acrobatics suspended from the Town Hall ceiling to a Dance of the Seven Veils in the aforementioned Salome segment. While his physicality (especially in the aerialism of “African Snake Dance”) was undeniably impressive, I was less inspired by the choreography. It would have been nice to have a little more dancing; the majority of the time what we got was mostly more like purposeful striding down the central catwalk. These movements lasted long enough that even the over-the-top costuming wasn’t sufficient to keep one’s interest. However, I did enjoy the tacky palm trees that suddenly appeared in the Hawaiian hula movement.

In the end, what impressed about this performance was the fluency of Body’s score and how well it knitted together its disparate elements to form a cohesive whole. I also can’t offer enough praise to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra who performed the score like they’ve played it their whole life, ably directed by Kenneth Young; amazing facility considering that it was the world première. Also congratulations to the orchestra and Auckland Festival for their endeavour in presenting this work – while not all elements came off perfectly the work itself is most worthy indeed.