Far too rare are local opportunities to celebrate the popular reception of a new operatic work in Perth, or Australia as a whole. Barking Gecko Theatre Company, familiar with delivering challenging works for young audiences, brings a totally new work to Perth International Arts Festival, based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s eponymous picture book published in 1998. The source material is economical with words and eloquent with its detailed illustrations, making any stage adaptation ambitious, even without puppets, music and choreography.
The Rabbits, the book and the opera, tells the story of the marsupials and the land when rabbits arrive to explore, settle and then develop the unnamed country. John Sheedy’s adaptation steers away from tying the tale specifically to Australia, trying to encompass general experiences of colonialism, but retaining marsupials and rabbits ensures a strong local flavour. Strong responses from audience members across all ages prove that lack of familiarity with the book is no obstacle to engaging closely with this production.
Sheedy has brought many talented artists together to develop The Rabbits – Kate Miller-Heidke composed the score and also performs. As the bird she stays high up above the clashes between the marsupials and the rabbits, singing in her own peculiar style that combines bush sounds with amazingly controlled operatic high trills, remaining detached until it becomes clear that she is also affected by the changes across the land. Lally Katz prepared the libretto, the rabbits rejoicing in rapid, stylised operetta outbursts while the marsupials take their more natural and fluent style from contemporary musical theatre. The lyrical repetition works well not only as an effective libretto for opera, but also as appropriate storytelling for children. Gabriela Tylesova’s raked stage design emphasises the detail from Tan’s illustrations, and her puppets and striking costumes create a sense of change over time. The band, led by Iain Grandage, are strongly incorporated into the production, from their incidental music often influenced by the concept of clocks, with rhythmic ticks and thuds echoed in the choreography and stage action, to actually walking up and performing downstage in certain scenes.
The tearjerking highlight is the scene featuring box kites, puppet baby marsupials and heartbroken mothers watching their children drifting beyond reach. Jessica Hitchcock has strong vocals and superb physical delivery that affects many during the song. The strength of the piece is also its weakness – while it is immediately accessible through its strong links to various musical numbers, it does not stand out enough to promise to become a standalone piece in its own right.
The heart of opera is overwhelming passion. While the scale of this narrative is vast, the lack of key individual characters hindered the generation of overall full-on connection, as demonstrated by the emotive success of the stolen children scene.
An exciting Festival production, Sheedy and Grandage have foreshadowed future “tweaks” after this run and before the presentation at Melbourne Festival in October 2015, and it will be interesting to see what further strengths could be introduced to this production.
A Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Opera Australia co-production in association with West Australian Opera commissioned by Perth International Arts Festival and Melbourne Festival
composed by Kate Miller-Heidke | libretto by lally katz | based on the book written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Adapted and directed by John Sheedy
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 12 – 17 Feb 2015
Part of Perth International Arts Festival 2015