The Rabbits, written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan, is an extraordinary piece of work. It takes important historical events and recreates its message in a haunting picture book- reaching children and adults alike. It does not shy away from what it needs to say. The adaption of this work into this opera not only seeks to extend the book’s powerful message, but it manages to create an entirely new and equally extraordinary piece of work.
The opera is created almost like a pantomime and at just over an hour long it manages to keep its accessibility to its younger audience members. The set creates striking landscapes of billowing clouds and sweeping outback, pushing onto these intimidatingly large-scale versions of Tan’s sketched machinery. The small band/orchestra is on stage throughout the production, keeping the sound loud and close. The costumes are works of art; almost surreal illustrations come to life to stroll across the stage.
The music itself is unique for an opera, blending Kate Miller-Heidke’s distinctive sound with bits and pieces of all kinds. The marsupials (performed by indigenous actors/singers Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha) sound of the earth, the rabbits (performed by operatic singers Kanen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows and Robert Mitchell) have a little rabbity trademark noise that they weave into their voices. It’s incredibly clever, and deftly weaves together songs of light-hearted comedy and incredible heartbreak.
For this is how the book reads: an emotionally confusing state of laughing at jokes but readily feeling that undercurrent of blatant tragedy. Like the original work the opera seeks not to shy away from the importance of its message and by its concluding line you find yourself in quite the state of emotional upheaveal.
Miller-Heidke’s character Bird is particularly resonating. A creature that is able to narrate and warn of the events to come but unable to intervene, and it is her carefully sung lines that hit home.
“From this distance I don’t have to feel for you”
“Your world is not the same as mine”
“… I can’t help you. Sorry”
The Rabbits will be playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay until the 24th January. For more information visit www.opera.org.au
The reviewer attended the Opening Night performance on the 14th January.
Photo credit: © Jeff Busby