In June 2021, Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s Parrwang Lifts the Sky fell victim to a COVID-19 lockdown at the eleventh hour. Filmed in the Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse Theatre and streamed to international as well as local audiences, it was still a bitter disappointment that this ground-breaking collaboration between Victorian Opera and our indigenous opera company, Short Black Opera, could not be experienced as intended.
For this season, Short Black Opera has taken over the production costs, and Parrwang takes flight in even more spectacular form to share a traditional story from the oldest continuous culture in the world as a vibrant theatrical experience. Integral to this 50-minute opera in one Act and seven Scenes is the interweaving of the Wadawurrung language, giving the experience even greater weight and power, while translations projected onto side screens, along with a description of main plot points, makes the story fully accessible, especially for children.
Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s brainchild, Short Black Opera, has been a driving force in giving indigenous singers, children and adults, an opportunity to develop their musical talents. Parrwang boasts a cast of several indigenous singers, including Cheetham Fraillon herself, who continues to enrich our musical culture as a composer and performer. Her passionate support of emerging singers and musicians has been remarkably successful. A major addition to this season is the presence of six members of the Dhungala Children’s Choir as magpies and other birds, flying in to make set changes and contribute to choruses with admirable professionalism.
The opera opens with cheerful music as the “plucky magpie” Parrwang (Rebecca Rashleigh) readies her river red gum living-room nest for a visitor – her cousin Gorngany (Cheetham Fraillon) from Yorta Yorta country. It is no coincidence that Cheetham Fraillon is in fact a proud Yorta Yorta woman. Once again, Rashleigh is a delight, her crystal clear voice and animated personality totally captivating as she sings about the beauty of her Wadawurrung country. She is interrupted when school uniform clad Big Sister, Tjatjarrang (Jess Hitchcock) and Little Brother, Koki (Michael Petruccelli) reach her by climbing to the top branches where, amazed, they experience sunlight and the colourful beauty of trees, flowers and sky. The importance of language is introduced and its intersection with reality; science nerd Koki knows the Latin names of things he has, alas, never experienced. Petruccelli might look more like a big brother, but he is convincing in his earnest boyish enthusiasm, his fresh tenor an appealing component of the trio. Hitchcock’s voice is very similar to Rashleigh’s in its purity and vibrancy, and her interchanges with Petruccelli display an admirably light comic touch.
As the children disappear into the dark depths, Mr and Mrs Waa arrive in a suspicious flurry, preening their splendid feathery costumes as they go. One of the two cast changes from the earlier production is the role of Mr Waa. Eamon Dooley, and Shauntai Sherree have fun with their parts, singing with much more grace and beauty of tone than you would expect from crows. Despite the absence of ugly cawing, Cheetham has given them music of a contrasting character, and Dooley negotiates his Gilbert and Sullivan type patter song assuredly. Like other cast members, his diction is excellent. After debating the merits of the humans’ case, they hurry off to attend the Great Council of Birds. Parrwang finds a more sympathetic listener in Gorngany when she arrives with her news, and they begin to devise a plan to lift the sky, which they can bring to the meeting. The two children join them in a quartet where chorale counterpoint sits with emotionally engaging melodic material.
During the orchestral interlude, the set is amplified into a gloriously colourful scene for the Great Council of Birds. Bunjil, the creator, who appears as an eagle, explains the purpose of the meeting – “to maintain the orderly sharing of the skies”. Adrian Tamburini, the second new cast member, is an imposing Bunjil, his towering presence and the gentle resonance of his bass baritone voice giving his portrayal a rare degree of gravitas. Parrwang and Gorngany make a persuasive case about sharing the sky with humans in a beautiful duet. Bunjil is sympathetic to the predicament of humans since he himself had moulded them from clay and grass fibres, and agrees that the magpies should lift the sky. For the waiting time as forces gather, some touching lyrical music culminates in a stirring chorus of affirmation sung by the full vocal ensemble in Wadawurrung language as dawn breaks.
With input from a number of Cultural advisors, the combination of Set and Costume Design by Mel Serjeant and Lighting Design by Peter Darby has resulted in a visually exciting production. Director Elizabeth Hill, assisted by Cheetham Fraillon, has made imaginative use of the various levels of the tree branches to create fluid movement, and incorporated a range of detail to enhance characterisation. Humour is a featured element, both in the splendid costumes and the libretto; even Bunjil’s most solemn pronouncements are followed by a mood-lifting witty comment.
The chamber ensemble of Orchestra Victoria musicians treats the score with skilled assurance under the guidance of indigenous conductor Aaron Wyatt.
Parrwang Lifts the Sky is an ideal end of the school holidays treat for children – and for people of all ages. It is also a significant addition to the small number of operas composed by our indigenous people – a situation due to a shameful lack of financial support from government arts bodies.
There are two more performances of Parrwang Lifts the Sky on Saturday, July 8 at 2.00pm and 6.30pm.
Heather Leviston reviewed Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s “Parrwang Lifts the Sky”, presented by Short Black Opera and Arts Centre Melbourne at the Playhouse Theatre on July 7, 2023.