Much of the creative team behind 2021’s delightful Noongar-language family opera Koolbardi wer Wardong (Magpie and Crow) returns here to tell a very different story, also in Noongar: that of doomed lovers Wundig wer Wilura, whose transgressive desires brought shame on their families and sealed their fates at the hands of Mubarn, the “Clever Man”.
All the elements of grand opera, of the epic history play, are here: love and war, trust and betrayal, intimacy and the sublime. Hills person Wundig (a charismatic and charming Jarred Wall), fleet of foot and a great hunter, is already betrothed to Mandi (Bella McGill). Valley person Wilura (Jess Hitchcock, here in exceptional voice), a renowned beauty, is already betrothed to Gulambiddi (Jarrad Inman). They also happen to be cousins, and so a union between them would be forbidden, even if they were otherwise free.
But Wundig and Wilura fall in love and tragedy ensues as the amicable relationship between the two peoples deteriorates. War erupts and Mubarn (David Leha), in the best deus ex machina tradition, steps in to prevent further massacre.
In a series of miraculous metamorphoses, Mubarn transforms the hills warriors into grass trees and consigns the souls of Wundig and Wilura to two great hills divided by a river, respectively Walwalling (the weeping place) and Wongborel (sleeping woman).
And yes, you can visit these very places today, in the Wheatbelt town of York. For Walwalling is Mt Bakewell and Wongborel is Mt Brown; the river is the Avon River; and the valley is the Avon Valley.
In this world premier performance of a Wesfarmers Arts Commission presented in association with Perth Festival, the final duet of Wundig and Wilura, as they stand forever parted on their respective hills, was the dramatic and emotional highpoint in a roller-coaster of an opera which features moments of great humour as well as pathos.
It would be invidious to single out any one performer for praise or censure: it’s probably fair to say there was a broad spectrum of talent and technique on display, all of which however contributed to the dynamic effect of the whole. I would however like to make special mention, apart from those already acknowledged, of Ronald Dick (Bworan), Charley Caruso (Ngaank), Della Rae Morrison (Kabaarli Kalyat), Teresa Moore (Maamyok), Tyrone Brownley (Kongk) and Rebeun Yorkshire (Maambart).
Composers Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse’s score, skilfully arranged and orchestrated by Dr Chris Stone, brings the story to life with deftness, sensitivity and an ear both for heightened musical and verbal language and their corresponding vernacular while blending seamlessly with Jeremy Turner’s sound design.
Matt McVeigh’s elegant set design, enhanced by Mark Howett’s lighting design and video content, provides an essential counterpoint to the costumes by Peter Farmer Designs and Rae Cottam.
Director Matt Reuben James Ward and choreographer Ian Wilkes pull off quite a feat in bringing to the surface the kinetic suggestions of monumentality lurking within this story, while in the pit conductor Aaron Wyatt and the WA Symphony Orchestra rose to the opening night occasion with an impassioned realisation of the eclectic score.
In her Limelight review of Koolbardi wer Wardong, Marilyn Phillips suggests that earlier work “would best be described as musical theatre” rather than opera. With its power ballads, tuneful duets and ensembles and impressive dance set-pieces, I’m tempted to say the same here – almost. In fact, Wundig wer Wilura skilfully festoons a scaffolding of ancient ritual and custom with a multiplicity of musical styles, from opera to chant to pop.
This ensures not only its accessibility to a much wider audience but to a greater variety of cultural touchstones. Which chimes with one aspect of the moral behind the story: that kinship systems are there for a reason. More broadly, one could take another lesson from this story: that, provided we’re prepared to learn from each other and from our ancestors, embracing difference ensures our collective future.