WA Opera premieres Noongar saga Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre

David CusworthThe West Australian
Gina Williams as Ngaank Boodja, Jarred Wall as Wardong and Jarrad Inman as Koolbardi in Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre.
Camera IconGina Williams as Ngaank Boodja, Jarred Wall as Wardong and Jarrad Inman as Koolbardi in Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre. Credit: James Rogers

Rarely does the end of a run feel truly like the start of something new, but Gina Williams AM has a way with inspiration.

While the Noongar artist and her musical collaborator Guy Ghouse have worked on her personal story in two Perth Festival shows — with more to come — this week with West Australian Opera they recreated a story for the ages, for all ages.

Koolbardi wer Wardong — Magpie and Crow — is a creation narrative that tells how humanity came to be divided through the jealousy and pride of two brothers.

Much as Cain and Abel in the biblical canon, one can hunt and the other cannot; and they fight with tragic results.

But far from black-letter lore, Williams and Ghouse tell the story with song, colour, light, movement and above all humour, aided and abetted by two rising stars, Jarrad Inman as Koolbardi and Jarred Wall as Wardong.

They are backed by the comic duo of Tyrone Brownley and Natasha Eldridge as Djidi Djidi and Miss Djidi Dhidi, who tease the action along like a Greek chorus — complete with masks.

Gina Williams as Ngaank Boodja in Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre.
Camera IconGina Williams as Ngaank Boodja in Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre. Credit: James Rogers

From behind a scrim depicting tall forests of WA’s south, Williams looms as Ngaank Boodja (Mother Earth), radiant in presence, costume and voice, singing the motto of the story: “Pride comes before a Fall.”

Gentle jazz turns to lullaby as she and a chorus of barna — animals — played by a 10-strong Noongar chorus and scores of West Australian Young Voices marshalled by Perry Joyce and Katie How, with intricate movement choreographed by Olman Walley, bed down for the night.

A production team led by director Matt Reuben James Ward, with conductor Aaron Wyatt, set and costumes by Matt McVeigh and lighting by Mark Howett, ensures a visual feast of colour and whimsy, never stopping to change set as the action flows through.

Ghouse joins an erudite jazz band in the pit with WA Youth Orchestra musicians, providing a pastiche of style and genre orchestrated by Dr Chris Stone, with all the energy of Bran Nue Dae but in a timeless, transcendent setting.

Williams is at the heart of the story, charming, coaxing and cajoling her creation, but the two boys give it limbs and flesh, preening like poppinjays in white lace and jabot.

Inman puts the cool in Koolbardi, bring all the pizzazz of a pop front man to a banquet scene where he taunts the mob, “Who’s too deadly,” and they gleefully respond, “You’re too deadly”.

The singing is in Noongar but the sense is also conveyed by English surtitles, just like European opera.

The Djidi Djidis’ response, “Look Out Now”, is Motown with a dash of slapstick, while Wardong’s reflection, “My good solid friend he has gone away”, is the soul of pathos and regret.

Stunning effects in the fallout send the brothers to a fiery fate from which they emerge transformed — not as a phoenix, but mottled and black; magpie and crow.

Mother Earth reprises the moral, “Pride before a Fall”, with longing in the greeting Williams uses in so many presentations: “Boorda” — speak/see you “Soon”.

Jarred Wall as Wardong and Jarrad Inman as Koolbardi in Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre.
Camera IconJarred Wall as Wardong and Jarrad Inman as Koolbardi in Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong, by Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, at His Majesty’s Theatre. Credit: James Rogers

The narrative ends in a return to the lullaby, all sleeping under Mother Earth’s watch, and the long tail of this exuberant celebration is a curtain call in character.

Except, at the last, artists broke the fourth wall to praise Williams and Ghouse, and she called out the future.

“This is our language and this is our love offering, and we’re so humble for all the love that’s been shown to us,” Williams said.

Then, with young son Tommy beside her, she issued a challenge and an invitation: “It’s not just a Noongar story, it’s a West Australian story, because we all call this place home.”

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