Not everyone thinks of turning a children’s picture book into an opera, but the rabbits had burrowed deep into John Sheedy’s imagination. He took the idea to Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini, who in turn asked pop singer-songwriter and classical soprano Kate Miller-Heidke to write the music. Miller-Heidke is also the principal soprano in the show, which premiered at the Perth Festival 2015.
“This book fell into my hands about 12 years ago and it was the first time I had seen any of Shaun Tan’s work . . . I was completely inspired, and in awe that, between Shaun Tan’s illustrations and John Marsden’s powerful and economic language, they tackled such huge themes. You can spend an hour on each page and make discovery after discovery … The epic nature of the illustrations just lent itself to an opera.”says John Sheedy, the artistic director of Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company.
The thin but densely packed volume was analysed, divided into scenes and elaborated by a creative team that, in addition to Sheedy and Miller-Heidke, includes playwright Lally Katz (who wrote the libretto), composer and conductor Iain Grandage (musical arrangements) and designer Gabriela Tylesova. Tan and Marsden have endorsed the production but are not involved in it.
JOHN Marsden and Shaun Tan’s 1998 picture book The Rabbits is a thin volume with a lot of story. It’s a tale of colonisation. A primordial landscape of burned ochre desert and limpid blue billabongs is disturbed by the arrival of a foreign race of rabbits. There are no references in Marsden’s and Tan’s book to time and place, but the visual cues are obvious.
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