DOT AND THE KANGAROO
Dot and the Kangaroo is an opera for children of all ages (and their adults), currently being developed by Berlin based Australian composer David Osborne, with a libretto by the composer and a German language version by Olaf Roth. It is loosely based on the book of the same name, written in the 1890s by Ethel Charlotte Pedley and tells the story of a little girl, who after losing her way in the Australian bush, encounters various native animals. The original book, like the opera, is full of humour and excitement. It is hoped that by appealing to European children's fascination with and love of native Australian wildlife, the opera will deliver a strong and positive message concerning the need for environmental protection.
The updated version also deals with important issues relevant to our world today: Some historical yet still unresolved such as stolen children, others of a particularly contemporary nature for example reminding us that those who arrive on the shores of a strange land in boats are not always given the warmest of welcomes. The opera also explores the theme of cultural appropriation.
If necessary, the opera can be performable with a moderately sized cast and modest orchestral forces. This should enable productions to tour economically, perform in smaller venues and as a consequence be accessible not only to audiences in big cities.
It would no doubt have come as some surprise to the author that she is now best remembered for the much loved children's classic. Her obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 8th of August 1898 does not mention the book at all, preferring to focus on her career as a violinist, music teacher and composer. The reason for this being that Dot and the Kangaroo was first published the year after it's author succumbed to cancer aged only 40.
Dot and the Kangaroo is far more than just an endearing tale of a little girl lost in the Australian bush. It is a pull no punches critique of how the country was colonised, how it's unique fauna and flora were treated by the white settlers and indeed, albeit in a perhaps unsurprisingly flawed Victorian way, how the first Australians fared as well. As such it is a story that should have particular resonance in contemporary Australia, as well as having meaning for children everywhere.
It has been suggested that Ethel's deep impression of the Australian bush was inspired by the landscape around her brother's farm near Walgett in north- western NSW, the lands of the Kamilaroi people. The setting for the opera will be the Warrumbungle Mountains, a beautiful and rugged area located within the boundaries of these lands.
To the children of Australia
in the hope of enlisting their sympathies for the many
beautiful, amiable, and frolicsome creatures
of their fair land,
whose extinction, through ruthless destruction,
is being surely accomplished
Ethel Charlotte Pedley
Act 1, Prelude
Dot is seen leaning on a window-sill, staring out into the bush and day dreaming. From far away she hears, or imagines she hears a voice calling to her. Although she doesn't fully understand the meaning of the words, it seems to Dot that what she is hearing might be some kind of lament, perhaps as if something or someone very special has been lost. Returning to reality, Dot is asked by her Mother to gather some bush flowers before dinner and she sets off, at all times making sure that she stays in sight of the farm. Suddenly, a hare starts at her feet and springs away into the scrub. Dot, forgetting herself momentarily, scampers after it. By the time she realises that she has no chance of catching the hare, she can no longer see the cottage. Dot becomes frightened and runs, little knowing that she is going further away from her home with every step. Finally she stumbles into a clearing, peers upwards to the heavens then slumps, exhausted and frightened at the foot of a Blackbutt tree.
Act 1, Scene 1
Dot is lost and afraid. She tries to re-assure herself that her family will be out searching the bush the moment they realise she is missing, but then she remembers the story of a little boy who ventured out into the bush recently, never to return. It's late in the afternoon and the bush is full of strange and terrifying sounds. She notices a large dark shadow looming over her and realises she is not alone…
Covering her face in expectation that she is about to meet her untimely end, Dot opens her eyes only to see standing before her a large female eastern grey kangaroo. At first it appears that the Kangaroo is less than overjoyed with this interruption to her day. We soon learn that this is not the first time she has encountered a child lost in the bush. Suddenly the great creature appears to have an idea. She bounds off a short distance and Dot can see her foraging back and forth in the scrub. She returns carrying in her paws a selection of different coloured berries. It is clear to Dot that the Kangaroo wishes her to eat them, something that Dot is all too happy to do, given that she is starting to feel quite hungry. It is then that really strange things start to happen…
These are clearly no ordinary berries. As she eats Dot becomes aware that the mysterious noises surrounding her are actually the voices of the creatures in the bush. Thanks to the magic of the berries, she can now understand all that they are saying, although she probably wishes she couldn't. Clearly the bush creatures are not too fond of Dot and her kind.
Act 1, Scene 2
Dot and the Kangaroo can now communicate, and we discover the reason why Dot was given the berries in the first place. The Kangaroo has a child, a Joey who not long after leaving her pouch, disappeared while they were grazing on grass near a human settlement and has not been seen since. She tells Dot the story of that fateful moment, of falling asleep momentarily whilst relaxing in the warm afternoon sun, only to wake suddenly to find her whole life turned upside down. Having heard of human children keeping native animals as pets, the Kangaroo wonders if Dot might be the one responsible. Dot for her part is horrified by the suggestion, she cannot imagine what could have prompted the Kangaroo to make this allegation.
The Kangaroo continues her story with mounting panic as she remembers searching desperately for her baby. Finally she describes finding a high vantage point from where she can look out across the whole countryside and in doing so, how the awful truth is revealed. Dot is horrified and deeply moved by this story but appeals for understanding:
Look, Kangaroo I'm really, really sorry
To hear about your baby. It must be awful for you
But if he was taken by men and perhaps that is true
Then you have to believe, that's something I'd never do
And I am lost myself right now.
At home I have a Mother
Who'll be feeling just the way you do.
We are not so different, Kangaroo…
The Kangaroo comes therefore to the conclusion that Dot is after all a trustworthy creature, and promises to help Dot find her way home. First however, they have to get to the Billabong (waterhole) to drink, as all the bush creatures must do in the evening. Those who hunt the animals for food know this as well, so it is likely to be a dangerous journey.
Act 1, Scene 3
We find ourselves at a Billabong, deep and clear, surrounded by trees. The water enters at one end via a small waterfall. A Koala stands at the foot of one of the trees, She stretches, yawns then begins to climb. When she reaches the highest branches she looks out in all directions, scanning the horizon as if on the lookout for something...
Having satisfied herself that the coast is clear and there are no dangerous Humans in the vicinity, she calls out to the other animals, informing them it is safe to come out from hiding. As the Koala busies herself munching on gum-leaves, one by one starting with the smallest of birds, they do just that. Having eaten her fill, she then calls once more, this time imploring the others not to make too much noise. Like all Koalas, at any given time she is either eating or sleeping and this one has finished eating!
Bubbles appear on the surface of the Billabong, followed by a Platypus who shakes himself dry and looks up somewhat indignantly at the Koala in the treetops. The Platypus believes himself to be very well informed on most things, but living as he does a very isolated existence, most of his beliefs turn out to be... well, just plain wrong. He repeats one of these commonly held misconceptions now:
Platypus: Oh for heaven's sake, I don't know why you even bother coming to the Billabong.
Everyone knows Koalas don't drink water anyway...
Just as he says this, Dot and the Kangaroo arrive on the scene and Dot immediately corrects him, causing great consternation from the Platypus and not a little mirth amongst the other animals. For her part the Kangaroo is starting to realise that there is more to her new friend than perhaps meets the eye. As the small birds join in the fun, the Kookaburra, who finds all this particularly hilarious, encourages Dot to keep teasing the Platypus. Dot however, explains that she was only trying to set the record straight, and that she never meant to hurt the Platypus's feelings.
A great commotion then ensues, the Kookaburra laughing hysterically as things really start to get out of hand. Finally the Koala, who everyone has forgotten, calls out indignantly from the top branches of the tree reminding everyone that she is trying to sleep. After a brief silence, the animals again continue their argument, at first in whispers but then gradually increasing the volume until once more, mayhem ensues! Again they are interrupted but this time they realise the situation is far more serious than the mere disturbance of a sleepy Koala.
The animals realise that they are after all in danger. There is a fire and a human camp close by. The Kangaroo explains to Dot why it is important that they escape the area without coming to the notice of the indigenous tribes-people:
Kangaroo: Your people have pushed them off their land, so they are not likely to be too pleased to make your acquaintance given the circumstances. As for me, they will very likely see me as their next meal.
Dot: Oh Kangaroo that's terrible!
Kangaroo: Well yes dear, but at least they have a purpose in killing my fellow creatures. Your men just to do it to pass the time, they call it sport...