Melbourne Festival: The Rabbits

The Rabbits is an hour-long opera based on a 1998 children’s picture book. Its Melbourne Festival season is sold out and as the Playhouse exploded with joy at the end of last night’s performance, it’s clear that this remarkable new Australian opera is going to be around for a very long time.

The Rabbits. Melbourne Festival, Opera Australia. Photo by Jon Green

Adapted and directed by Barking Gecko’s John Sheedy, it’s a co-production with Opera Australia in association with WA Opera and was commissioned by the Perth and Melbourne festivals. Ostensibly an opera for children, it’s an amazing introduction to the form and sound of opera – and the many children who saw it were mesmerised  – but its levels of complexity and understanding never excludes an adult audience.

The original book is a 32-page, 228-word analogy about English-style rabbits invading and colonising a country of marsupials. It won awards, has been published all over the world, and remains a best seller and favourite book with John Marsden’s powerful words and Shaun Tan’s exquisite illustrations, which can’t be seen without finding something new. This production captures the heart and essence of the book and brings it to stage by creating characters from a story that doesn’t have characters.

It begins with the introduction of a narrator, a white bird inspired from the brolgas on the end pages (the decorative pages inside the cover) and is told through five marsupials (Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha) and five rabbits (Kanen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows and Robert Mitchell). Images like the steam-punk-like bike the rabbits enter on, handing a cog to the marsupials, and a lizard in the test tube are moments that are easy to miss on the pages but have become the turning points and drive of the stage story.

Lally Katz incorporates the Marden’s sparse text into the libretto and lets the characters, who are inspired by the illustrations, tell their personal stories and do what they can’t do in the book: reflect on their actions.

Kate Miller-Heidke’s composition and Iain Grandage’s arrangements and additional music is welcoming to new ears and to opera buffs, who can spot the references. The combination of English-style opera and a more contemporary music-theatre style celebrates the sound and form of opera, while never being afraid to embrace music that isn’t associated with old-style opera.

The Rabbits. Melbourne Festival, Opera Australia. Photo by Jon Green

Without trying to capture the endless complexity of the illustrations, Gabriela Tylesova’s design takes details and makes them so real that it feels like walking into the world of the book. The mask and costumes for the marsupials and rabbits look like Tan’s creatures but allow the performers to be seen (similar in style to Julie Taymor’s Lion King design). And with lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, the scene where the babies fly away on kites is almost too much to bear.

With the September release of the National Opera Review, there’s a lot of discussion about the value of opera as a form and of the ongoing existence of Australia’s subsidised opera companies.

Then along comes The Rabbits. This is an Australian story made with Australian voices that shows how wonderful Australian opera can be. Along with last year’s co-production of The Riders by Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre, it’s time to be excited about opera in Australia and time to stop asking if opera has a place, but to ask why our resources aren’t being used to make more productions like this.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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