The Rabbits, composed by Kate Miller-Heidke, Lally Katz as librettist, is an uncomfortable piece of art, though unfortunately not in the way the creators probably intended. The opera is an adaptation of the John Marsden authored, Shaun Tan illustrated book of the same name. The book is a nuanced, thoughtful examination of contact between two cultures that did not understand one another with tragic results. There is almost no need to point out that it is an allegory for Aboriginal-European contact in Australia, although some international readers might not be aware of this, so perhaps it still bears saying.
The operatic piece, The Rabbits, is an entirely different creature. I’m afraid that by the end of the performance I was twisting around in my seat scanning the audience of white faces, trying to work out if someone, anyone else was experiencing the same sense of horror at having watched it. Perhaps I went into The Rabbits expecting too much? Perhaps I should have set my bar lower, but if so, I would need to have set it very low indeed.
In the opening of the opera, we are presented with the character of The Bird, who seems at first to be merely a clumsy attempt to bolt a narrator onto the narrative, though I will come back to her as she forms a deep part of the problematic nature of the work as a whole. Very rapidly the ‘marsupials’, are tidily boxed away as innocent mystics who care for lizards and have simplistic, third-rate barbarian fantasy genre names like ‘Three Stripe’. One of the marsupials has a mystical dream and recounts it, though it is not clear if the dream is meant to be an omen, a reflection on the Dream Time, or just a way to kill a few minutes.
We then have quite a bit of singing from that bird. I’ll come back to The Bird.
Throughout all of the opening, the songs, and the conversation among the marsupials, I was wondering more and more: why is no one speaking language? I know there are a lot of languages, but if it’s hard to pick one, just opt for one of the languages from around Sydney where first contact happened. No one will complain about that… Alright, I guess if you want the audience to understand the performers (not a typical consideration in opera), then why are the marsupial songs in a European tonality, rhythm and musical scale? Why has the narrative been written around the marsupials in a European story structure and not a story structure more typical of Aboriginal folk or traditional storytelling? There are a lot of vibrant, alive Aboriginal cultures and nations to pick from, with many profoundly skilled writers, singers and performers to consult… why are the marsupials performing as if they are rabbits before the rabbits have even arrived on stage?
And then that bird sings again. The Bird seems to serve no narrative function by this point. It seems… well… indulgent to the point that I was wondering why the writer added the role in the first place. Of course I did not realise at the time that The Bird was the writer… which I will come back to.
The arrival of the rabbits did not improve the general racially uncomfortable feeling of the whole work. The rabbits were altered from the more nuanced depiction in the original book into a pantomime of fart and bum jokes, which I can understand and forgive if the intent is to lure in children. But there was another very strange thing, which is that although the book depicts male and female rabbits, the rabbits on stage were exclusively male. The choice struck me as perplexing and it cannot have been accidental. You cannot accidentally exclude female performers from a set of roles and not notice. I think this may have to do with the way the opera degraded the rabbits into panto-villains rather than providing realistic depictions of evil committed by people who think themselves to be doing good. I started to wonder if the writer of the work had such a simplistic view of history that she could only imagine evil being inflicted by soldiers, mad scientists and politicians? Women colonialists don’t fit that mould, so they can’t possibly be depicted as a part of the evil. Can they?
The narrative proceeds much as it does in the book, at first with a little contact, then more, then an overwhelming sweeping through of conflict. There was a point in the performance where one of the rabbits tells the marsupials that one day, if they are lucky, their children will be rabbits. At this point I was thinking: And you, up there on the stage, yes you dressed as marsupials… the rabbit is right… you are the children of these people and you have become rabbits. You are speaking a rabbit language, dancing around in a rabbit dance-mockery of your culture, singing in rabbit musical rhythms and being applauded by a room full of rabbits, because we rabbits are now so very pleased with how rabbit-like your performance is.
I almost walked out at this point. I didn’t… I wanted to give the performance a chance to turn around. I really, really wanted to enjoy it. Throughout the show, I’d been gathering a suspicion that The Bird was supposed to be a manifestation of modern white guilt, speaking backward through time. I wasn’t completely convinced that this was the intent, though the line where The White Bird of Spiritual Whiteness says I wish I could help you but I can’t to the marsupials did start to incline me to thinking that the story was doing something very clever after all. Putting the audience into the show would be clever. Alas, no. The bird’s extremely discomforting depiction as a white woman, painted white, wearing white, standing up above the marsupials and (literally) talking down to them throughout the show, spun wildly out of control into a strange ego aggrandisement before the end was through. Whereas the focus of the story should be on the tragedy of the marsupials, The White Bird of Spiritual Whiteness ends up with her own narrative arc, being flashed with electric lights and tragically not able to find her way home. Even the birds couldn’t find their way home. Even the birds couldn’t find their way home.
Assuming that the bird is a stand-in for the writer, who also performed the role, what The Rabbits teaches us is that the true victims of the genocide of Aboriginal peoples of Australia are not the Aboriginal people themselves. No, the true victims are enlightened white people who are forced to feel very bad and very disorientated by all that bad history. I for one feel such a deep and abiding sorrow for the white people who are forced to feel guilt that I… no, actually I can’t even finish the sentence.
How could any Aboriginal person be involved as a writer on this project and not point out that it is a giant, mess of well-meaning but extremely unpleasant racial stereotypes, pigeon-holing and egoistic sorry-feelings? Of course, the answer is fairly straightforward. There were no Aboriginal writers on this performance. There is one consultant, who may well have pointed out that there was something rotten in the state of rabbit, and been promptly ignored, for all we will ever know.
In the end, The Rabbits got a resounding ovation and applause. To every one of those people who applauded, it might behoove you to consider why it was that you didn’t actually notice that it is not exactly racially enlightened to uncritically watch a group of modern Aboriginal people pretending to be a neutered, tamed and Disneyfied White Australian ideal of ancient Aboriginal people.
If this show had been produced in New Zealand, the Maori performers would sing in Maori. If the show were in Canada, First Nations people would speak their own languages. In South Africa, the expectation would be that the African performers would speak or sing in one of the Bantu/Nguni languages. Even in the US, that bastion of racial harmony, this show would have already been eviscerated in the reviews for it’s portrayals of race. No other post-colonial country would blithely tolerate the way The Rabbits was produced, let alone applaud it. Why is it acceptable here?
I suppose we may simply have to wait until someone else has a go at adapting The Rabbits. The adaptation I saw not only failed to meet basic expectations of not being racist, it is frankly a pretty shameful indictment of just how far we are from genuine integration of Aboriginal ideas, values, stories, culture and human complexities into modern mainstream Australian culture. If The Bird wishes she could do something, she can: start revising.