It was not an exaggeration to speak in terms of being “broken-hearted” when Victorian Opera announced that Deborah Cheetham’s Parrwang Lifts the Sky had to be postponed and would only be available via a digital platform. A ground-breaking collaboration between Victorian Opera and our indigenous opera company, Short Black Opera, it had become another semi-casualty of COVID-19 lockdowns.
One ray of light was that it could be filmed in the Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse Theatre and made available to international as well as local audiences. Hopefully, this vivid operatic creation will also have wings as an educational complement to indigenous appreciation in our schools. Both Cheetham and Richard Mills, VO’s Artistic Director and the conductor of the performance, are passionate about education and the power of music and story-telling to nurture understanding and foster reconciliation. Ways of enriching our cultural connections to one another and to the country we share are crucial to our development as a cohesive society.
Deborah Cheetham’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 predominantly indigenous singers, including Cheetham herself, who goes from strength to strength as a composer and performer. Her landmark opera Pecan Summer established her as a composer of note and her continuing support of emerging singers has been remarkably successful. Notable among these are Shauntai Batzke, who sings the role of Mrs Waa the crow, and Jess Hitchcock – one of the two children who persuade Parrwang to plead their case for humans to be given light.
The opera opens with cheerful music as Parrwang (Rebecca Rashleigh) readies her river red gum living-room nest for a visitor – her cousin Gorngany (Deborah Cheetham) from Yorta Yorta country. It is no coincidence that Cheetham is in fact a Yorta Yorta woman. 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 and little brother Koki reach her by climbing to the top branches where they experience sunlight and the beauty of colours, trees and flowers. The importance of language is introduced and how it intersects with reality; science nerd Koki knows the Latin names of things he has, alas, never experienced. As Koki, Michael Petruccelli might have looked more like big rather than “little brother”, but he was convincing in his earnest boyish enthusiasm, his fresh tenor a very appealing component of the trio. Jess Hitchcock’s voice is very similar to Rashleigh’s in its purity and vibrant quality; at one point in the trio one soprano voice sounded like an extension of the other. A soulful mellow horn adds to the emotional appeal as the three sing about yearning for a world where beauty can be shared.
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. Kiran Rajasingam and Shauntai Batzke relish their parts but sound nothing like crows – both have uncommonly beautifully rich and attractive voices. Despite the absence of ugly cawing, Cheetham has given them music of a contrasting character with Rajasingham having fun with his Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter song. 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 that they can bring to the meeting. The children join them in a quartet where quite complex ensemble writing is interwoven with emotionally engaging melodic material commonly found in musical theatre.
Although the 50-minute opera consists of one Act and seven Scenes, there is an orchestral interlude as the set is adjusted for the Great Council of Birds. Things settle as the creator Bunjil (an imposing Don Christopher) appears in the form of an eagle and explains the purpose of the meeting – “to maintain the orderly sharing of the skies”. 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 Cheetham has written some touching lyrical music that culminates in a stirring chorus of affirmation sung by the full vocal ensemble in Wadawurrung language, accompanied by English subtitles, as dawn breaks.
The combination of Cultural Textile Design by Deanne Gilson, 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 Deborah Cheetham, 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 and add entertaining interest. We even have a nifty exchange of elbow bumps at the end of the mid-way quartet.
The chamber ensemble of 13 musicians treated the score with skilled assurance, finding both lively colour and nuance under the guidance of Richard Mills’ baton.
Please note that the following issue is not experienced by all viewers and it is may well be that some of us need to upgrade our computers. At the moment, however, sound and vision may not be properly synchronised for some people – a problem that appears to worsen during the course of the opera. It can make the words more difficult to understand at times, especially with regard to the female singers, and when the musical texture thickens and instrumentalists have louder passages. This is not to say the singers have poor diction, on the contrary; it would seem that a great deal of care has gone into making the text as clear as possible.
Of course, what everybody really wants to experience is a live performance in the flesh; that is only what would do full justice to this significant contribution to our cultural heritage and its splendid realisation by the performers and creative team.
Heather Leviston reviewed Deborah Cheetham’s “Parrwang Lifts the Sky”, presented by Victorian Opera and filmed for streaming at Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse during June 2021.