“The music was magic.” “The music was perfect.” “I loved the music.” “Oh, and the music!”
These were the words of members of the audience sitting near me immediately after the performance of this beautiful piece of music theatre for children (and also for adults). I wasn’t going to start this review by talking about the music, because it was not the only thing about this show that was magic, but I will take my cue from the audience.
The libretto for this children’s opera was written by Alan John. It acted as a springboard for the creation of the action, and the spoken part of the dialogue, much of which came together through improvisation during the rehearsal process. Most of the action takes place between a Girl who, strangely, can hear colours, and the Rainbow Bird, who embodies and personifies the colours the Girl hears. The Girl, brilliantly played and sung by Michaela Burger, hears blue as a violin, tracing arabesques; she hears green as a clarinet rippling in all registers as it goes from the deep blue of the chalumeau register to the light sky-blue of the upper register; she hears red as a trumpet; and she hears yellow as a marimba. Each colour also has its own scale – Lydian mode, whole tone, octatonic, and pentatonic, and so has its own tonal as well as instrumental “colour”.
Alan John, one of Australia’s most brilliant theatre composers (indeed among the dozen or so best Australian composers for any medium) contrasts and combines these different instruments and their scales in ingenious ways, and sometimes give rise to chords reminiscent of Scriabin or Messiaen, both composers who could hear colour. Apart from the instruments I’ve named, the only others were various percussion instruments (mostly used delicately to underscore stage action) and a piano, yet these spare resources created a diaphanous web of sound which, well, enabled the audience to hear all the colours of the rainbow. Alan John’s music never overstays its welcome by a single bar – and of how much Australian composition can that be said?
As the colours multiply into a rainbow, they become incarnated in the miraculous Rainbow Bird. Bethany Hill, who sang this role, has a voice which makes the Queen of the Night sound like a contralto. Her singing part, specially written for her, spans just over three octaves, and her performance, especially the astral high notes, was just breathtaking. This mades the wonder, and also the exceptional gift, of the Girl being able to hear colour, growing as it does out of the coloured electric lights in glass bottles, electrically tangible on stage. The Rainbow Bird then teaches the Girl to sing, and as she learns, their dialogue becomes a graceful canon.
But there is a third character, a house-painter who wants to collect colours, and who derides the girl’s ability to hear colours as weird. The painter is sung by John himself, who adds a gentle tenor voice to the two sopranos to give rise to ensembles of Mozartian elegance. His appearance is a comic intrusion of the mundanity of the everyday into the magical world of the Girl’s murals colours. He tries to deny the validity of the Girl’s experience of hearing colours, and the stage goes white, and the Bird loses her gorgeous finery. But then the painter reveals his own weirdness, of which he is ashamed – he turns out to be able to taste colours. The Girl, earlier marginalised as odd, is now the agent of the painter being able to accept the business of his being able to taste colours, and regard it as a gift. Then the musical threads, the colours, and the three characters, all combine organically in a final ensemble of great beauty.
Go and see this delicious show if you can. This is how the world should be.
Patch Theatre Company presents
Can You Hear Colour?
music and lyrics Alan John
Director Naomi Edwards
Venue: AC Arts Main Theatre, 39 Light Square, Adelaide SA
Dates: 9 – 11 March 2018
Tickets: $35 – $30
Part of the 2018 Adelaide Festival