Lally Katz is one of Australia’s most prolific and produced playwrights, the kind of fresh voice that Australian theatre craves.
Her work has toured all over Australia and even made it to New York. It’s spawned television and film adaptations.
But even for such an accomplished writer, the prospect of adapting a book by the much-loved Australian author John Marsden was intimidating.
Katz had the formidable task of adapting the spare poetry of The Rabbits, a picture book by Marsden and illustrator Shaun Tan, into a libretto for an hour-long opera.
“It’s always scary adapting someone else’s writing because you don’t want to let their work down,” Katz says. But she loved the picture book, loves making work for children and loves opera as a medium. Add to that the prospect of working with an artistic team made up of some of Australia’s best creative talents – “all of whose work I really admire” – how could she say no?
The show was an enormous collaborative effort. “The entire creative team was responsible for structuring how the story would work theatrically. I was given really specific tasks to write dialogue and lyrics, without having to be the only person responsible for the way the whole story would hold up.” That took some of the pressure off, but was also “a really fun way to work,” Katz explains.
While the work was in development, the whole creative team gathered in one room to work out how the structure and the world of The Rabbits would work.
“Director John Sheedy would give me a specific writing task and then I’d go off into a corner of the room and write a scene or some song lyric,” Katz explains. “Then Kate Miller-Heidke would take those lyrics and make them into a song.”
Kate worked with Iain Grandage on the songs, and then the pair would come back and perform it for the rest of the team. “It was spectacular watching those two amazing talents perform in the rehearsal room.”
Meanwhile, designer Gabriela Tylesova was working on creating the design for the set and costumes, indigenous consultant Rachel Maza was advising on everything the team came up with, and Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini and producer Sandra Willis were on hand, too.
The team had a series of intensive workshops spread out over about a year. “In the workshops things came together really fast,” Katz says. “I find the best stuff always happens fast because you are on the same wavelength as the other artists.”
Katz describes herself as “anything but a musician – I’m tone-deaf!” She worked really closely with Kate Miller-Heidke to learn how words and music work together. “We really got each other’s imaginations, and our instincts fit together straight away. She is brilliant with words, and I love working with her. She’s become one of my favourite people to collaborate with, and one of my favourite people period!” Katz says, her American roots coming through.
When the work finally premiered at the Perth Festival early in 2015, it sold out, receiving standing ovations each night and rave reviews. The Guardian called it “a triumphant adaptation of a deeply tragic story”, while the Australian praised “this short, powerful gem of a work [which] tells an important story in a beautifully engaging way”.
And the story of The Rabbits is important – it’s a tale of colonisation, of displacement, of culture clash. It’s an allegory for the experience of indigenous Australians at the hands of the British, but could just as easily be an allegory for any colonisation throughout history. It’s no easy task to take this kind of story and tell it for audiences of all ages.
“If you have the right story, a universal story, it’s achievable,” Katz says. “The main thing is always that you feel it while you’re writing. If you don’t feel it, no one else will!”
If you can speak to a child’s imagination, you avoid talking down to your audience, she explains.
The creation of The Rabbits was exciting, but it was nothing compared to the experience of putting it on the stage. “It was thrilling when we first started working with the performers and musicians. Suddenly, there was this whole other layer and life to the work!”
The Rabbits is on at Arts Centre Melbourne during the Melbourne Festival in October (sold out) and at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay during the Sydney Festival in January.
Tickets available on the Opera Australia website.