The Rabbits, the book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan, is an almost perfect piece of art. The idea of using rabbits and marsupials as metaphors for colonisation is inspired and Tan’s illustrations are so superb that everything that needs to be conveyed is conveyed, with minimal explanatory text. It is subtle and haunting and heartbreakingly beautiful. Having said that and freely admitting that it is high on my list of all time favourite books, I have always been slightly conflicted about the message, and in particular, the last sentence which asks “Who will save us from the rabbits?”.
Taking an almost perfect piece of art and transforming it into another art form has always been problematic for fans of the original form and with this adaptation of The Rabbits into an opera, I have to ask the question – why would you do it? While the costume and set designers do a wonderful job trying to live up to Tan’s illustrations it is simply not possible to argue that the illustrations needed the embellishment of movement and three dimensions. Adding hundreds more words to Marsden’s pared back text and then putting that to music, removes all the haunting subtlety and depth of the original; simplifying the message and complicating the delivery. So the answer to the question must be that it is because the message needs enhancing.
The message in the book seems to be that colonisation is brutal and ugly and incredibly damaging and we should never forget the lessons we have subsequently learnt. This is, of course, my interpretation of the message but the book with its silences and pauses gives me room for my interpretation. In the opera the message is literally screamed at you from a mountain top. Colonisations is not only brutal and ugly, but wanton, irreversible and irredeemable. At the end of the piece you are left with the thought that there is absolutely no hope and certainly no redemption. I not only feel that this is perhaps an oversimplification of a complex issue but would question the point of telling an audience (of mostly rabbits) that nothing we have ever done or will ever do in the future will absolve us of our culpability. They have chosen the particularly Rabbity art form of opera to tell us that nothing the Rabbits ever do is any good.
The other question I would ask about this opera is – who is it for? The picture book is not simply a children’s book, but it is nevertheless easily accessible to children, whereas opera can be a difficult art form for children to understand. The music is complex and at times discordant and the words often hard to decipher. At some point someone decided that since the actors are dressed as cute animals, perhaps they should make it more appealing to children and so include a scene which portrays the Rabbits as malodorous, nauseated buffoons and throw in a bum joke for good measure. This not only undermines the serious message of the work but suggests that the marsupials were not defeated by an intelligent and pitiless foe with superior weapons but were subdued by staggering, vomiting idiots who could barely stand up. This is hardly a helpful idea.
And so we come to the last line, which in both book and opera is the question “Who will save us from the rabbits?” I have always felt this was the wrong question to ask because the unpalatable answer is that no one will. The question permanently casts the marsupials as victims in need of saving, which seems to me not only incorrect but detrimental. If the Rabbits are a representation of The Other, (Colonisation was never just a British idea) then there is no one else out there to hear the question. If the question is directed at the universe then the assumption is that the Rabbits do not belong to that same universe, that they are so alien that different laws apply. This is exactly the thinking that colonisers are accused of using to justify their actions and it completely ignores the main thrust of the story which is that rabbits and small marsupials are in fact very similar animals, just with a different set of adaptations.
Despite all this you might be surprised to discover that I did enjoy the performance and do understand and endorse the idea that the purpose of art is to make you feel uncomfortable. The costumes are marvellous and the performances are really wonderful and Kate Miller-Heidke’s score has some moments of genius – particularly the operatic trills and calls inspired by native bird song. Overall though, I have more reservations about this work than I have plaudits.