Apart from giant puppets trundling through the Western Australian capital, the most touted attraction for this year’s Perth International Arts Festival is the premiere of a new work, The Rabbits. It is badged as an opera, and also as a children’s opera, but as with many new works, its genre is not really a stable entity. The Rabbits was composed by multi-talented Kate Miller-Heidke, who also sings the Bird, and the music is augmented by well-known Western Australian composer Ian Grandage. The libretto, by Lally Katz, is drawn from a children’s book by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan; the latter was the recipient of an Academy Award for his animated short The Lost Thing.

There is not in one sense a great deal of narrative – the work only runs for an hour – but the action encapsulates the origins of the modern Australian nation: a country of marsupials is invaded by first a trickle, then a flood, of rabbits, and their way of life is disrupted extensively and forever. While, as an allegory, this is about as subtle as a rabbit trap, it does manage to avoid too much overt preachiness, and at times is very moving. Perhaps the most affecting scene is where marsupial babies (stuffed rather than live) are removed from their parents and placed in box kites which disappear up into the sky.

The almost perennial issue with modern works is, is it an opera? This is not as clear cut as it might be with, for example, Maxwell Davies’ children’s operas which operate in an operatic idiom while still managing to be genuinely appealing to children. On the one hand, the idiom of The Rabbits is as much music theatre, including music hall, as classical. The score for the Bird, which represents all birds in the country which observe but stay above the fray, is clearly in a modern classical idiom, but most of the rest of the score is not. On the other hand, it is definitely not a work for young children, although they might enjoy some of the more rollicking bits.

The production was extremely polished and effective, and it should be noted that this is a collaboration not just of opera companies but also the Barking Gecko Theatre Company of Perth, which specialises in theatre for young people and families. Congratulations are due to the adapter and director John Sheedy. The costumes and settings (Gabriela Tylesova design, Trent Suidgeest lighting) reflect the quite surrealist illustrations of the book; the costuming of the rabbits does tend to make them look rather like pelicans at times, but the marsupials, somewhere between bandicoots and wallabies, are rather fetching. One might have hoped for the more colourful backgrounds of Tan’s originals but in that respect the setting is rather stark. The Bird sings from the top of a sort of miniature tower of Babel edifice, around and on the spiralling ramps of which the cast performed. The Bird boasts a towering white fluffy wig, leading to some audience discussion as to whether she represented a sulphur-crested cockatoo or a corella.

Musically, a solid vocal cast was accompanied by a small ensemble, comprising Grandage on piano, cello and piano accordion, with support from guitar, violin, trumpet, tuba, and “electronics”. Miller-Heidke sang in a pure accurate soprano, and, where she was singing words rather than abstracted bird song, with excellent diction, a feature of all the vocal cast. The singers, particularly the five rabbits, represent types rather than characters: a scientist rabbit, a society rabbit, a convict rabbit, a (naval) lieutenant rabbit and the captain rabbit. All sang well, with Kaneen Breen, Opera Australia’s reigning comic tenor as the scientist, particularly entertaining. The five marsupials are somewhat more like real individuals, and, along with Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer, bolsters one’s appreciation of how many talented Indigenous singers we now have. The women particularly impressed – Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock and Lisa Maza, but Marcus Corowa and David Leha contributed strongly both vocally and dramatically. It should be noted that the performance was amplified, which does lead to a certain levelling effect vocally. All the vocal ensemble singing was quite immaculate.

The work was enthusiastically received on its opening night, and has yet to be seen in other parts of Australia, where it is sure to be a popular success. Whether it would work so well in other parts of the world is an interesting question.

3.5 stars 

Sandra Bowdler