Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Rabbits - Opera Australia

The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan, adapted by John Sheedy.  Composer – Kate Miller-Heidke; libretto by Lally Katz; arrangements and additional music by Iain Grandage. 

Opera Australia in association with Sydney Festival – a co-production with Barking Gecko Theatre Company in association with West Australian Opera.  This production is assisted by the Australian Government’s Major Festivals Initiative, in association with the Confederation of Australian International Arts Festivals – Perth International Arts Festival, Melbourne Festival and Sydney Festival, and the Western Australian Government through the Department of Culture and the Arts.

Musical Supervisor – Iain Grandage; Musical Director – Isaac Hayward; Director – John Sheedy; Designer – Gabriela Tylesova; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Sound Designer – Michael Waters; Indigenous Consultant – Rachael Maza; Assistant Designer – Michael Hili; Fight Choreographer – Scott Witt. Photo credits – Jon Green, Jeff Busby.

At Roslyn Packer Theatre (previously Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay) January 14 – 24, 2016.

Bird – Kate Miller-Heidke

Coda – Hollie Andrew
Flinch – Jessica Hitchcock
Roxie – Lisa Maza
2Stripe – Marcus Corowa
3Stripe – David Leha

A Scientist – Kaneen Breen
A Society Rabbit – Nicholas Jones
A Convict – Christopher Hillier
A Lieutenant – Simon Meadows
The Captain – Robert Mitchell

Piano, Cello and Piano Accordion – Isaac Hayward
Trumpet – Callum G’Froerer
Guitar and Electronics – Keir Nuttall
Violin – Stephanie Zarka
Bass and Tuba – Andrew Johnson

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 14

There are very good reasons for going to the opera to hear and see this hour long allegory of the invasion of Marsupial country by The Rabbits.  But, despite the tremendous nation-wide support listed above, I was not entirely satisfied at the opening night of The Rabbits in Sydney.
Traditionally, for many people opera is as much or even more about the music than the play.  Opera is often claimed to be the greatest form of theatre because it combines all the arts in telling dramatic, often romantic, stories – but the 18th and 19th Century core of the operatic tradition leaves a legacy of melodrama and grand display.

As a text written for children, John Marsden kept to a carefully designed minimum, while Shaun Tan’s illustrations both amuse and horrify.  As a stage adaptation, John Sheedy gives us plenty of humour and just a touch of empathy for the plight of the Marsupials, but I think for adults the horror has slipped away.  The allegory is clearly to show the tragic consequences for the Indigenous peoples of Australia of the ruthless invasion of modern European culture. 

Kate Miller-Heidke’s composition has about it, in a surprising blend of the conventions of pop and traditional opera, just the right attitude in music to match Shaun Tan’s original illustrations.  The set design and the costumes use Tan’s images, but the effect is not, oddly enough for opera, on the grand scale of the book illustrations.  It might seem to some that I am asking too much, but I think the theme of The Rabbits needs something as huge and grotesque as the descent into hell in Don Giovanni.

The Rabbit Captain

Bird - the narrator

Though these images of The Captain and Bird show the wonderful originality of both Shaun Tan’s art and of Gabriela Tylesova’s translation of that art into stage costumes, only bits and pieces of Tan’s pictures appeared in the set design.

I felt more oomph was needed while watching the performance. 

These images (which I’ve brought over from Shaun Tan’s webpage at ) would have created the right impact, maybe as huge full-stage projections, instead of our seeing only the front section of the invading ship, or a few rather spindly smoke-stacks.

Though I appreciate the support of all those government and theatrical organisations for this opera, which was why I have quoted them all at the top, for my full satisfaction I think John Marsden and Shaun Tan deserve a grander production.  Then when the Marsupials express their final fear that everything – their country and even their children – have been taken away from them forever, we – especially those of us descended from The Rabbits – will feel the complete horror of the situation, and strengthen our resolve to make amends.

And though I fully appreciated the support and excitement in the audience for the performers, the quality of the presentation and the whole idea of such a new, original, and definitely Australian opera, I’m not so sure that the curtain call for actors and the band should have been quite so cheerful.