By Karyn Hodgkinson
There is much to admire about Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s work. A Yorta Yorta woman, soprano, composer, educator and nurturer of indigenous artists, she continues to give much to the Australian cultural landscape. She is also an innovator, which her AO (Order of Australia) recognises. She has written two operas, Pecan Summer and this, Parrwang Lifts the Sky, both unique contributions to the operatic repertoire and to theatre as a whole. However, as much as I love to see genres explored in new and interesting ways, this production doesn’t quite achieve its potential.
Parrwang Lifts the Sky is a creation story of the sunrise based on a traditional story fromWadawurrung country. It is a story of benevolence and generosity, where the Creator, Bunjil the eagle, is persuaded to share the delights of his created world with the human beings that he formed from clay.
The set design by BJ O’Toole and Mel Serjeant, is a visual feast, with its indigenous representations of Australian fauna, flora and dot-painting. It dominates the stage with its sweeping shapes, textures and colours. As the sky ‘lifts’ at the end, the lighting design by Peter Darby, reveals a dazzling world to be enjoyed by the human siblings.
The singing by all leading characters is excellent. Rebecca Rashleigh makes a sweet Parrwang, the ‘plucky magpie’, in her clownish costume. Eamon Dooley as Mr Waa, the crow, is appropriately finicky and Shauntai Sherree is indeed glamorous as Mrs. Waa. Michael Petruccelli as Koki, the schoolboy brother, has a lovely tenor voice. Deborah Cheetham Fraillon is charming as Gorngany, the visiting cousin from Yorta Yorta country. Her duet with Parrwang about sharing the sky was a show highlight, as were the haunting base baritones of Adrian Tamburini as Bunjil the Creator. One of the challenging aspects of opera is the diction. I would have appreciated greater attention to this as, despite the slides at the side of the stage explaining the story, it would have helped the audience follow the narrative a little better.
Despite this, there were some very amusing lines such as ‘would you like some grub?’ Here Parrwang offers a plate of huge fat witchetty grubs to Gorngany for her afternoon tea. Likewise I chuckled when Tjatjarrang, the typical human sister, sarcastically gives her brother shade with, ‘that was deep’, in response to his remarks.
As mentioned, this production could be more than it is. For me, the musical style of the piece became a little monotonous. It would be satisfying to explore a wider musical palette.
The set, as visually rich as it is, seems physically limiting to the performers, making the piece very static. In keeping with operatic tradition, the performers stand and sing. For a family show of nearly an hour’s duration, it could benefit from more physical action. This is a story showcasing birds, providing plenty of opportunity for physical movement, choreography and/or aerial work (of course, not necessarily by the singers). Scene 5, the Great Council of Birds, is described as ‘chaos by design’ in the synopsis notes. This could have been an uproarious, cacophonous scene but instead, was a rather staid affair. It was wonderful seeing the involvement of the Dhungala Children’s Choir, but more could have been done with this group.
Lastly, the piece could have more dramatic tension or conflict. An audience loves to experience a good struggle in order to have a satisfying resolution.
This said, this work is unique in so many ways and is well worth seeing.