Opera review: The Visitors, Arts Centre Melbourne

Victorian Opera's adaptation of Jane Harrison's novel and play leads audiences to new ways of thinking about opera and Australia’s rich history.
The Visitors. Image is three First Nations singers with face paint and a bare tree trunk, wearing dark, grey and brown robes.

Victorian Opera’s The Visitors told the story of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788 from a First Nations’ perspective, reimagining Murawari writer Jane Harrison’s play and novel of the same name. This approachable opera, sung in English and Dharug language, encourages deeper understanding of Australia’s history and its ongoing impact.

While the entire cast exhibited clear talent and vocal control, Saibai/Motuan mezzo soprano singer-songwriter Jess Hitchcock (Joycie) stood out, displaying a voice of vibrant clarity. Her musical conversations with soprano Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman (Winsome) were seamless, with both women showing power in their storytelling. Tenor Marcus Corowa as Jacob effectively infused some gentle playfulness into the piece.

Composer Christopher Sainsbury’s score was commanding and surprising, and drove the rich emotional journeys of six Elders and one initiate as they watched ships approach the shores of Warrane/Sydney Cove.

Sainsbury’s jazz influence shone through, adding richness to the score. Traditional Aboriginal music was elevated in moments when the Elders voted on how to respond to the ships approaching and during the chant-like ‘Away From Our Country’. Its syllabic nature effectively marked these moments as significant.

The Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra was strong and precise as it navigated the score, expertly steered by conductor and Head of Music, Phoebe Briggs.

This unsettling and moving work was heightened by a bold lighting design from Rachel Burke, immersing audiences in the stifling summer day and occasionally using the house lights to great effect.

Read: Performance review: Hour of the Wolf, Malthouse

The libretto from Jane Harrison wove Dharug language with English, showing the potential for collaboration that highlights Indigenous language and stories. There is clear scope for Indigenous language to be elevated in future works. 

The Visitors proves opera to be a malleable art form, capable of leading audiences to new ways of thinking. In the Program Notes, Director Isaac Drandic wrote, ‘The Visitors is a story that is ready to be told’ and, judging by the work’s reception on opening night, Victorian Opera audiences are ready to listen.

The Visitors
Victorian Opera
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Based on the play The Visitors by Jane Harrison

Composer: Christopher Sainsbury
Librettist: Jane Harrison
Conductor: Phoebe Briggs
Director: Isaac Drandic
Set and Costume Designer: Richard Roberts

Lighting Designer: Rachel Burke
Sound Designer: Sam Moxham
Cast: Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Elias Wilson, Jess Hitchcock, Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman, Zoy Frangos, Marcus Corowa

The Visitors was performed 18-21 October 2023.

Savannah Indigo is a researcher and copywriter, trained in publishing, dance, literature and law. Passionate about gender issues and promoting equity through tech design, she has researched Indigenous Data Sovereignty for the Commission for Gender Equality in the Public Sector and is developing a paper about harassment in the Metaverse. She has written for Brow Books, Books+Publishing magazine, The Journal of Supernatural Literature (Deakin University) and the Science and Technology Law Association, and is a 2022 Hot Desk Fellow at The Wheeler Centre.