NOW in its third Australian season (it premiered last year in Perth then played at the Melbourne Festival) this original piece co-produced by Opera Australia and Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre drew an ecstatic first-night ovation in Sydney, with even the Prime Minister and his wife clapping along.
A lot hung on this production, a rare sign that the flagship opera company was getting behind new Australian work (as opposed to big productions of Broadway musicals) causing OA’s CEO Craig Hassall to exult after the show that one Melbourne critic had depicted the music theatre piece as a turning point in Australian operatic history. Not “Voss”, not “Batavia”, but “The Rabbits.” And yet though sung-through, it was probably no opera at all but rather an elaborate crossover art form.
To be sure this is a beautifully staged show, sensitively directed by John Sheedy, whose attention to the stylised movements of his actors is exceptional. The musical direction of the small ensemble by Iain Grandage was subtle and equally sensitive.
The design by Gabriela Tylesova centres on a kind of anthill, sometimes flanked by tall ships, machines belching pollution. Tylesova’s costumes beautifully reflect the vivid book illustrations by Tan. Featuring wide-hipped cartoon-like marsupials (maybe numbats) and wildly predatory rabbits, all with faces visible, they leave us in now doubt as to the meaning of the show: we, the predominantly White Australian audience members, are the rabbits who come to this land, consume it, and assume ascendancy over the earth-related indigenous population and their babies.
And that’s it.
Presiding over the whole and clad in tulle is the ravishing Kate Miller-Heidke, composer of the work, as the ‘bird’-narrator whose beautiful abstract warbling warns of destruction.
The rabbits, performed by top OA singers including Kanen Breen Christopher Hillier, are portrayed as comic stereotypes— scientist, convict, socialite, colonial governor and soldier—their music and actions conjuring up Gilbert and Sullivan in a parody of paternalistic condescension.
The third layer of music and drama comes from the ensemble of indigenous actors/singers, advised by director Rachael Maza, playing the endangered marsupials, who represent nature, family and tenderness. Singing in an accessible popular musical idiom, they moved the audience with a poignant lament for their stolen children, puppets placed in little boxes by the rabbits and whisked way.
Three layers of music, but one layer of meaning.
And to whom was it directed? Was it intended to tell the predominantly white adult audience what havoc their civilisation had wreaked – possibly. The libretto by Lally Katz proved to be a coarse delineation of this undeniable fact.
Or perhaps it was for the children in the audience, for whom a series of school project-like exercises about the environment and Indigenous Reconciliation were printed in the handbills. But violent moments depicting the Frontier wars elicited cries of alarm from some very little ones.
From the outset it was clear this would be a coruscating attack on colonisation and it was, sometimes rescued by the ethereal voice of Miller-Heidke and the sheer anger coming from the marsupials, but heavy-handed in its impact.
As the opening night crowd of Opera Australia supporters and invitees applauded and whispered “delightful” and “what fun,” I for one found it anything but amusing.