A stark grey set with four ghostly tree trunks and matching kitchen chairs greeted the audience to Victorian Opera’s production of The Visitors, invoking the clashes between historical fact and creativity that were played out in the next sixty-five minutes of thought-provoking theatre. The premiere of The Visitors so soon after the failed Voice referendum provided additional poignancy to the occasion.
Victorian Opera is to be congratulated for their commitment to commissioning new works such as this, particularly by First Nations artists, and for bringing them to fruition in fully staged productions.
The Visitors is based on librettist Jane Harrison’s exploration of the attitudes and actions of seven Aboriginal representatives, who meet to decide their collective response to the arrival of the British First Fleet on 26 January 1788 in Warrane (Sydney Cove). Harrison’s other versions of The Visitors include a play that has had a series of workshopped and staged performances. A recently released novel with the same title allows for a more discursive introduction to the characters, geography and issues than the one-act opera’s libretto, which was based on around one third of the play script to allow for the impact of Christopher Sainsbury’s musical composition.
The production team – director, Isaac Drandic; set and costume designer, Richard Roberts; lighting designer, Rachel Burke; and sound designer, Sam Moxham – shaped an evocative expression of doubt and turmoil when faced with events beyond expectation and experience. Lighting was particularly important in suggesting changes of weather, which are important metaphors in the story.
Phoebe Briggs’ conducting was expressive and precise, bringing depths of musical details from the orchestra of twelve players seated in the pit below the front of the stage. The orchestral colour was limited to Eurocentric instrumentation of strings, woodwind, brass, guitar and percussion. Sainsbury’s musical style reflected his interests in modernist composers such as Henze and Birtwhistle as well as influences of jazz and traditional Aboriginal music.
The interplay between past and present in the text and the music was matched by the cast’s costumes and names. In the operatic version of The Visitors, the female component of the cast has been increased to three, who, together with four men, represent six indigenous elders and one youngster from tribal groups in what is now known as the Sydney area. The cast added ceremonial markings to their hair and faces and carried spears, but were dressed in modern-day clothing and given Anglicised names to reflect current implications of this seminal event in Australian history.
The members of the ensemble – Jacob: Marcus Corowa; Gordon: Zoy Frangos; Lois: Lillian Fromyhr; Joycie: Jess Hitchcock; Albert: Eddie Muliaumaseali’I; Gary: Elias Wilson; Winsome: Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman – were mainly on stage throughout the opera, which affected movement options. All the cast sang and acted with conviction, and their diction was exemplary. Lillian Fromyhr, as the younger character Lois, was as effective as other more experienced performers. Provision of surtitles was generally superfluous for me, except for hints about time and temperature and translations of the occasional indigenous word. Amplification was problematic at one stage, which was ironic given the jokes in the text about the benefits of modern technology.
I hope that audiences will take the opportunity to attend the remaining performances of The Visitors and that Victorian Opera will continue to champion a diversity of new operas.
Rosemary Richards reviewed “The Visitors”, presented by Victorian Opera at arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse on October 18, 2023.