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Review: Parrwang Lifts the Sky at The Arts Centre

Review by Thomas Gregory

As someone growing up in a Christian household, I was always disappointed by the story in Genesis. The “seven days of creation”, filled with massive universal events, is presented with little fanfare. “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” That’s all we got.

Compare this to the stories of the Wadawurrung Country, and I feel like someone let me down. One such story, how Parrwang the magpie convinced Bunjil the creator to “lift the sky”, has now been lovingly presented on stage in a family-friendly production from Short Black Opera.

Parrwang Lifts the Sky tells the story of how Parrwang the magpie is visited by two children who have climbed into his tree. Impressed by their curiosity and enthusiasm, the magpie laments that they must live in darkness and not get to enjoy the beauty of colours. Attending the “council of birds”, Parrwang is given the opportunity to convince Bunjil, the creator spirit, that the sky should be lifted so that even humans might enjoy its splendour.

The set for this local opera is spectacular. Large wooden cutouts of trees, painted in traditional artwork, surround stages of various heights, offering an almost-surrealist depiction of life in an ancient tree. Parrwang’s little home consists of a few stools and a table prepared for their waiting cousin. This vibrant design by BJ O’Toole and Mel Serjeant is illuminated (in the most spiritually fulfilling sense of the word) by the lighting of Peter Darby, and the world we are transported to is breathtaking.

The costume design for Paarwang and their friends is equally vibrant. Each bird is lovingly represented with nods to both traditional representations and the conventions of Eurocentric opera. The black-and-white costuming of Parrwang themselves is almost clownish, while the elegant blacks of the glamorous crows are difficult to describe in any way but “colourful”. The choice to costume the “children” in colonial-Australian school uniforms is both an easy way to indicate the age of the characters played by fully-grown adults and highlight their alien nature in this depicted world.

The performances in Parrwange Lifts the Sky are phenomenal. Soprano, Rebecca Rashleigh, plays the eponymous magpie as a creature filled with enthusiasm for life. Intrusion into their world is met with excitement, and Rashleigh finds chemistry with every performer she interacts with. Flittering about both physically and vocally, her hero is by far the most captivating to younger members of the audience. Jess Hitchcock and Michael Petruccelli play the sister and brother admirably - every sibling in the audience recognises their dynamic instantly, and Petruccelli’s portrayal of a “know-it-all” boy works well to highlight some of the funnier lines in the show. Adrian Tamburini offers an awe-inspiring presence as Bunjil, the creator, and Shauntai Sherree plays a wonderfully snobbish Mrs Waa, who might be recognised one of many older ladies who rank themselves too highly in the world.

For me personally, the stand-out performance of the night was that of Eamon Dooley. Playing Mr Waa, protector of the water ways, Dooley must take on the role of “villain” without being too villainous. The character may represent careful conservatism, but his concerns about the dangers of humanity are well-founded, and his turn in the final act is that of a creature convinced by the powers of optimism. Dooley has great comedic timing and appears to revel in this particular role, letting children have a bad guy they can boo (quietly) for while never really hating.

Of course, many audiences will be there for Deborah Cheetham Fraillon herself. The acclaimed Yorta Yorta soprano, who also created this opera, shines as the “cousin from the north”, the role of the wise elder who convinces Parrwang to speak up for what they believe.

The story of Parrwang is engaging and, when told in less than an hour, fulfilling for both adults and children alike. While audiences laughed several times at the cleverly written humour, there were also deeply layered themes regarding environmentalism, the respect of ancient knowledge, and the importance of community in creating a brighter future. It is difficult to walk away from the night without thinking about how “new” our “modern science” is, how much we have to learn from tens of thousands of years of experience, and how much we need to rely on each other to find happiness for our children.

I am admittedly of little education when it comes to opera, despite enjoying many that I have had the pleasure to review. It is, therefore, with slight embarrassment that I mention the few minor quibbles I might have regarding this show.

The show is primarily in English. Some songs are in the words of the Wadawurrung people but I couldn’t help myself to wonder why it wasn’t entirely written in such a beautiful language. In English, many lines were still difficult to decipher behind the traditional operatic singing, and I honestly believe it would not have made the show any less accessible to younger audiences. While yes, some comedic lines might be missed, I’m afraid some were anyway.

The surtitles for the show, while somewhat helpful in explaining the story, appeared to have little thought to them. If existing for the children of the audience, their vocabulary is not suitable, and if for the adults, then not necessary at all. I cannot help but wonder what this show would be like entirely in the language of the Wadawurrung with surtitles of the translation provided instead.

In a similar vein, it was surprising just how much of the score for this operatic piece sounded distinctly European in nature. The woodwind-heavy music (played beautifully by Orchestra Victoria) captured the sounds of birdlife so well, and perhaps it is a little ignorant of me to have hoped for more explicit influences from the music of the Wadawurrung people. I’m not sure that, without greater education, I would have listened to the score of this opera and ever considered that it came from a storytelling tradition older than a few hundred years.

Parrwang Lifts the Sky is a family-friendly opera with striking visuals that will definitely keep your children entertained. For adults, there is clever humour, breathtaking voices, and some deeper exploration of ideas that should always be on our minds. While I am not totally convinced by its attempts to combine conventional opera with the story-telling traditions of this ancient land, I am convinced that people should see this production while they can.

Image Credit: Mel Sergeant


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