The Lepidopters: A Space Opera

Jennifer Kingwell

The Lepidopters is a cross-art mashup tour de force.
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera

Both aggressively crass and tenderly worshipful, The Lepidopters is an astonishing exploration of polarities - from West to East, choral mass to punk band, animated porn to high art.

The Lepidopters is visually impressive before a single performer is in sight. Exhibited recently at the National Gallery’s Melbourne Now show, the Sedular Gamelan - an electro-mechanical 'piano' that plays tuned Indonesian percussion - holds court in the centre of the hall, like a filigreed dinosaur skeleton. As the audience settles in the traverse seating, each gong of the Sedular Gamelan is accompanied by a lighting shift in a hexagonal display, travelling through an angular spiral - a pattern which becomes a central visual motif throughout the show.


At times reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, at others like Sufjan Stevens, Herbie Hancock and Bikini Kill decided to play a triple bill in a museum, the music is boldly curated and composed by Slave Pianos and features Michael Kieran Harvey, the Astra Choir and Indonesian art-punk collective Punkasila.

The Astra Choir, conducted by John McCaughey, perform elegantly realised settings of text from sci-fi visionary Philip K Dick, Goethe, mass liturgies and author Mark von Schlegell, who wrote the text for The Lepidopters graphic novel (illustrated by Punkisila bassist Erwan 'Iwank' Hersi Susanto). Ranging from microtonal half-cooing-half-ululating to full-bodied choral mass, the vocal flexibility of the 40-piece choir is astounding.

Kieran Harvey is one of Australia's most virtuosic and daring pianists, as his performance here demonstrates. His performance is delivered with poise and just the right amount of flair, showcasing some serious synthesizer chops on his own composition 'Deaths-Head Mandala'.

Punkasila, joined by singer and dancer Rachel Saraswati, look like they might have come from Bill and Ted's future with silver pleather outfits and just-intonation 'gyrostatic' guitars, and deliver furious surf punk. Vocalist Uji 'Hahan' Handoko Eko Saputro preemptively mocks the audience (some of whom were looking somewhat confused at this stage) with exaggerated clapping and faux-conducting the bass clarinettist who joins them wearing a moth-head helmet.

After the ethereal quality of the Astra Choir-driven Part I gives way to the visceral performance of Punkasila in Part II, Part III delivers a truly sublime moment as for the first time the entire company interlock, bridged both physically and musically by the Sedular Gamelan.

This is a sprawling feast of a show that at times threatens to overwhelm the ears and eyes of its audience. But like the best high wire acts, the performers and creative team show great assuredness and discipline while delivering breathtaking thrills.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Lepidopters

Slave Pianos: Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Antanas Kesminas, Danius Kesminas, David Nelson, Michael Stevenson
Punkasila: Uji `Hahan' Handoko Eko Saputro, Rudy `Atjeh' Dharmawan, Antariksa, Erwan `Iwank' Hersi Susanto, Prihatmoko `Moki' Catur
Astra: The Astra Choir, John McCaughey
Piano / organ: Michael Kieran Harvey
Voice / dance: Rachel Saraswati
Video artist: Terra Bajraghosa
Narrator: Richard Piper

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
12 - 13 April 

About the author

Jennifer Kingwell is a Melbourne-based performer, broadcaster, writer and composer. She presents the subversive cabaret program 'Glitter + Doom' on PBS FM 106.7. Follow her on twitter: @jenkingwell