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Sydney Festival: The Rabbits review

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After successful seasons in Perth and Melbourne, Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s opera for children and adults alike has finally made its way to Sydney. It’s received almost unanimously glowing reviews over the course of its tour, so expectations for this Sydney Festival season of the Opera Australia production were very high.
While it’s not a perfect piece of theatre, it’s often very powerful and doesn’t disappoint.
The show is based on John Marsden’s picture book of the same name, illustrated by Shaun Tan, which tells an allegorical version of the colonisation (well, let’s not mince words, invasion) of Australia.
The marsupials (portrayed by indigenous actor/singers Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha) are living a peaceful existence, in harmony with the land, until the rabbits (played by operatic singers Kanen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows and Robert Mitchell) show up in a big ship and start building upon the land. What follows is a devastating clash of cultures.
Miller-Heidke’s score has plenty of artistic integrity and she’s defined two clear musical worlds for the marsupials and the rabbits — the marsupials have a more folk-influenced, rhythmically and melodically open musical landscape, whereas the rabbits have something more strictly structured in brisk tempos, influenced by traditional operetta and even the compositions of Kurt Weill.
The difference between these musical worlds is clear but never too obviously pronounced, and when they come together for Miller-Heidke’s finale, it’s quite an organic moment. Miller-Heidke, who plays a bird acting as an ever-present narrator, has another vocal landscape altogether, reminiscent of Britten’s more whimsical phrases, with her idiosyncratic crystalline soprano (sounding a little weightier than usual, presumably due to her pregnancy).
The score is a natural progression from Miller-Heidke’s popular music, bringing even more diverse soundscapes together, and under musical director Isaac Hayward, the five piece band incorporates some quirky guitar and electronic work from her long-time collaborator Keir Nuttall.
Lally Katz’s libretto has plenty of emotional punch — particularly in the final 20 minutes of this hour-long work. It’s clever and often quite funny, but the book which Katz adapted provides almost no character detail and is a deliberately open and short work. Katz has given each of the singers onstage individual characters, but they’re not quite as defined as you might hope.
And dramatically, I’m not certain Miller-Heidke’s character is necessary. This story can easily be told by the marsupials and rabbits without her narration. And ultimately the final tragedy belongs to the marsupials, and we don’t really need to hear from the bird at that point.
But it delivers a few almighty emotional wallops, firstly when the marsupial mothers are separated from their children — Hollie Andrew leads Jessica Hitchcock and Lisa Maza in a heart-breaking trio — then when they see their land destroyed in the finale. It ends up being quite a dark work for children, but certainly one that will encourage them to think about the issues our nation is still struggling to deal with more than two centuries later.
It’s a strong ensemble cast — Hitchcock impresses in the opening scenes as the youngest marsupial, and David Leha’s husky baritone is earthy and sublime. Karen Breen makes the biggest impact of all the rabbits as the scientist, putting his countertenor to great comedic effect and broadening out the sound of the rabbits’ ensemble numbers.
There’s been some discussion as to whether the piece actually counts as an opera or is better classified as a piece of musical theatre. I’m not sure the classification really matters, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is an opera — the term “opera” doesn’t refer to any specific style of singing or music and has evolved to encompass all kinds of aesthetics and musical styles over the many centuries we’ve been using it. This is an almost entirely sung-through dramatic work, and that is basically how we define opera.
I saw the show at a Friday matinee and it was packed with children who, for the most part, sat absolutely spell-bound. I suspect director John Sheedy and designer Gabriela Tylesova are largely responsible for this — they’ve created a production full of colour, movement and visual spectacle. It’s worth picking up a copy of the original book if you’ve never read it just to see how successfully Tylesova has brought Shaun Tan’s visual world to the stage.
This is a major new musical and theatrical work that really is for all ages (although I’d avoid bringing very young children) and while there aren’t too many tickets left for the Sydney season, I’d add this to the Festival must-see list.

[box]The Rabbits is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until January 24. Featured image by Jon Green[/box]

One response to “Sydney Festival: The Rabbits review

  1. Another view of “The Rabbits”, as written for the leading German operatic monthly,Opernwelt”.
    Renewal is a human necessity, in corporations, families and in art. Aesthetic history, though, has numerous stories of those who saw this imperative and others who resisted it: so every commentator must tread carefully. In particular, when an operatic libretto deals with the cultural and other conflicts which follow colonisation – but when the event is both past and enduring – the challenges are moral and personal as well as artistic (if, indeed, these can truly be separated).
    In the case of The Rabbits, a short piece of new Australian music theatre, the metaphor is powerful, but so is the magnitude of the creative task. Rabbits (not to mention other zoological and botanical immigrants) have certainly been serious depredators of the antipodean landscape, as the invading British were too, notably of its indigenous culture. Yet much of this assault is trivialised and distorted in this “soft-rock” opera, no less by Lally Katz’s libretto than by Miller-Heidke’s melodies and their arrangements and scoring (mostly) by Iain Grandage.
    The invaders of John Marsden’s remarkable 220-word children’s book (1998, with phantasmagoric illustrations by Shaun Tan) have been made musical and dramatic caricatures. Part of the historical tragedy is that the settlers were certainly not that: theirs was a serious intent and to treat them as absurd vaudeville cut-outs trivialises the enduring clash of cultures and values as symbolised by rabbits and marsupials.
    It also creates a lop-sided drama. The authors have riskily devised a new participant – a bird – who is also a narrator (though by turns the character is, paradoxically, both detached and involved), but she urgently needs a counterfoil amongst the Europeans. The option is certainly there in this production with the dazzling tenor/counter-tenor of the dancer-actor, Kanen Breen, but is scorned: the drama thereby suffers through insufficient malice in the intrusive rabbits.
    Regrettably, the music only makes matters worse. Though it opens strikingly with a virtuosic and baroque extravaganza for the classically-trained, pop-singer composer herself – her trills and roulades embellished and echoed electronically — it thereby substantially delays Marsden’s eloquent beginning: “The rabbits came many grandparents ago”. The parts for the marsupials are homespun and pop-derived though, teasingly, they carry the (generally unfulfilled) promise of serious expression; regrettably, the mélange of the mostly ensemble writing for the rabbits is of a trivial, rumpty-tum, meter-driven and formulaic kind. It is an uncomfortably stylistic mix and neither script not music has much dramatic shape: the contrast with (say) The Cunning Little Vixen is, in every respect, unflattering. Furthermore, this production located the five-member ensemble at the very back of the scene, almost out of sight, to its considerable expressive disadvantage: even more than might be inevitable with such a venture, this mostly rendered the accompaniment to amorphous generalisations.
    The audience, principally of dutiful grandparents and their charges, seemed to enjoy the show (15 January), but largely, I suspect, because of the outrageous and funny costumes which Gabriela Tylesova has drawn from the book, and the generously engaging energy of the cast.
    Real renewal, though, requires more than energy and that need is substance.

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