A moving depiction of the early days of colonialism and its impacts on the First Peoples, The Visitors is set on a day the mercury reaches 44 degrees. We meet six Aboriginal Elders and a young indigenous woman, who gather on the shores of Warrane (Sydney Cove) on 26th January, 1788. The 11 ships of the First Fleet sail into Sydney Harbour, 18 years after then Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook landed at Botany Bay.
The question the Tribal Elders need to vote on is how to respond now – what to do. What is the visitors’ purpose? Are they a threat? Do they mean harm? The Elders discuss various possibilities, including a show of force to push them away or letting them land and offering them safe passage, as is their protocol. The Aboriginals are from various mobs. Some are gung-ho, others more restrained.
The most vitriolic of them, who maintains the white man is up to no good, outlines what happened to his father when he offered the hand of friendship to “aliens”. Although that occurred some time ago, it didn’t end well and he was a witness. Another proffers that the interlopers could be in trouble and may require help. And yet a third suggests they couldn’t possibly want to stay because the drawcard of one’s country is writ large.
Over the course of its one hour running time, tension rises, a number of votes are taken and the pendulum swings. Birds fall from the sky, the weather changes – a portent of what is to come. So it is that The Visitors is a reimagined story of a real and highly contentious event in Australian history.
Turning it into an opera was a big and bold undertaking, which Victorian Opera and director Isaac Drandic have taken head on. The librettist is Jane Harrison and the writing is based on her own play of the same name. Composer Christopher Sainsbury had worked on the first staging of the theatrical representation, which premiered at the Sydney Festival in 2020. Sainsbury had also been discussing ideas around a First Nations’ opera – one of which was The Visitors – with the artistic director of Victorian Opera, Richard Mills AM. It was Mills who green lit the collaboration between Sainsbury and Harrison.
In composing the work, Sainsbury was influenced by a range of musical styles and genres. These include contemporary classical guitar music, modernism, jazz, traditional Aboriginal music and impressionist harmony. Sainsbury is a guitarist and in The Visitors the guitar is the only harmonic instrument in the ensemble. The performers, individually and collectively, are outstanding, as is the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Phoebe Briggs.
The work is infused with cultural references. Throughout, indigenous terms from the Dharug language are used to help inform the piece. For instance, Nowee means canoe or boat, Mago is axe, Duwal is spear, Goorabeera is gun, Wombah is crazy, Garriberri is corroboree and Lyora is people. Surtitles aid understanding.
I thought the simple staging, props, lighting and sound were fabulous. The stage is dressed to appear like the concentric circles that distinguish a tree when felled, upon which the trunks of four gum trees sit. It is the evocative endeavour of set and costume designer Richard Roberts. Setting the mood is Rachel Burke’s lighting design, complemented by sound design from Sam Moxham.
The Visitors is extraordinary well composed and presented. It deals with anxiety and trauma and is respectful, at times humorous and totally engaging. I found it compelling. Plaudits to Victorian Opera for staging such a fine production.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Idomeneo (Victorian Opera and Opera Australia) – opera review
- Tommy (Palais Theatre) – theatre review
- A Little Night Music (Victorian Opera) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.