REVIEW The Rabbits

The Rabbits
Perth International Arts Festival
World Premier
17th February 2015

I get quite excited when I hear that a new opera has been written, and swoon just a little when I hear that it will be performed in Perth, and when PIAF announced last year that the 2015 festival would include a world premier I practically died. A few years ago (actually, 2007) Richard Mills, the then Artistic Director of WA Opera, premiered his own opera The Love of the Nightingale, and I, a lowly highschooler at the sweet beginning of my opera-going days, took it in stride, not realising quite how much of an anomaly it was to be at the world premier, of an Australian opera, in Perth. Subsequent years have left me craving more of the contemporary music, and woefully dissatisfied at the what has been offered to sate my need.

If you know where to look, and constantly have your ears tuned to the classical music scene’s soft announcements you can normally find some contemporary operas performed in perth in any given year, but they tend to be armature, one-off, or more akin to cabaret/musicals than opera, and even then they aren’t very many (read: typically 1 or 2/year). In 2011 Into The Shimmer Heat played to great reviews, but self-styled as an anti-elitist and with a sound of “Vampire teen soft porn rock heavy metal genre” it was more dance/theater than opera/classical. Last year new company Lost and Found Opera presented 2 works – The Human Voice (staged in a hotel room, with Fringe Festival) and The Emperor of Atlantis (Cabaret) – both conceptually interesting, but there’s currently no word of future productions. With the new appointment of Brad Cohn as artistic Director of WA Opera new and substantial works may be on the horizon for Perth (least I hope), but in any event it’s against this scarce programing that I went with great expectations and nervous anticipation to Miller-Heidke’s first operatic work The Rabbits – world premier, Australian opera, in Perth. Thankyou.

Based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s picture book, the plot is lose but centerd around the invasion/settlement of Australia. With its short length (1 hour) and moralistic tone it plays more as theater of operatic inspiration, or perhaps a children’s opera. It certainly isn’t a creature that would sit comfortably alongside Wagner, Verdi, or Britten, nor with Mozart’s more ‘family-friendly’ singspiel The Magic Flute, but it does have something of Glass’ early experimental works with its heavy theater influences. If opera is the perfect balance of music, poetry, and drama, this work is almost entirely driven by its text – the drama is slow and impressionistic, with none of the typical high romance or drama, and it is a welcome departure to focus less on characters, and more on the abstract subject (even if its treatment is a bit heavy handed). The music is responsive to the drama and full of emotionally drenched set pieces, and inhabits the harmonic realm of Broadway (which i typically have little liking for). That this work is more quasi-opera than opera is acknowledged in the program notes which pin it as  “an opera/musical/song-cycle/weird pop-concert/puppet-show/art-play” – not a traditional linear opera.

What’s nice about reviewing new works is that the execution of artistic decisions and performances are not the sole measure of a show’s worth – instead the very thing that we often take for granted is thrown open for consideration – is the opera itself any good? As an audience member it’s something of a novelty to be given that chance to judge so freely the worth of something without the shadow of history or reputation impinging. General consensus of the audience post-show: undeniably good. The Rabbits’ entire run was sold out well in advance of the first performance, with additional performances added to the schedule –  a sign I think of the general interest in contemporary music as the (surprisingly) adventurous audience of Perth eagerly patronise the new and innovative.

Of course something must be said of the standout performances – vocal performances of David Leha’s (Bass – 3 stripe) and Jessica Hitchcock (Soprano – Flinch) gave musical security to the work, and the actorly antics and bell tones of Kanen Breen (counter-tenor – scientist) had the timing for perfect comedy. Sets and Costuming were perfectly done and an ideal realisation of the picturebook’s illustrations.

Definitely recommended.

The Rabbits will be showing in Melbourne in October.
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
Based on the book written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Composed by Kate Miller-Heidke, Libretto by Lally Katz
Adapted and directed by John Sheedy
Musical director, musical arrangements and additional music by Iain Grandage
Designed by Gabriela Tylesova