Australia’s leading international student news website

1938: An Opera – a satirical take on the White Australia Policy

Grace Yew

Wed Oct 03 2012

1938: an Opera

COMING soon to Melbourne University’s Open Stage is musical comedy 1938: An Opera – a multilingual political satire featuring Aboriginal activists, Italian anarchists & Chinese communists striking back at the White Australia Policy.

The ground-breaking new musical comedy 1938: An Opera, was first conceptualised by independent theatre veteran Fregmonto Stokes (The Endarkenment), who here collaborates with artistic director Tom Gutteridge in a cross-cultural political satire.

The play takes audiences through an alternative version of Australia Day 1938 and the Aboriginal protest known as the ‘Day of Mourning’.

The writers have done their research, basing their characters on real historical figures from a variety of cultures. No other play would showcase Aboriginal activists, Italian anarchists and Chinese communists working as one unit to strike back at the xenophobic White Australia Policy.

As if the premise wasn’t unusual enough, 1938 will be performed in five languages by a multicultural cast, many of whom are student artists from Asian and European cultures.

Rehearsals, complete with translators and introductory courses on Australian history, were an eye-opening experience for the international performers. Few of them had collaborated with so many people from other backgrounds before, let alone on the same production.

Working on the set

Eric Tse, a cast member and third-year student at the University of Melbourne, confesses it was “a very unique experience”. The Hong Kong native plays real-life Chinese activist Fred Wong, who chaired the Chinese Youth Drama League and used the profits from his Melbourne-based theatre work to help his homeland during the Japanese invasion.

“It’s my first time working with local students in the theatre, and it’s a great platform for us to learn from each other,” he says.

“The people were very friendly and willing to share their experiences.

“It’s a challenge to act in an English production, but I like the way Tom (Gutteridge) handles it, telling us to explore our characters.”

Ensemble member Pearl Lau concurred, saying the cast enjoyed the opportunity to work with passionate performers from different backgrounds, and learn more about various cultures’ histories in Australia.

“We learnt about the importance of immigrants to Australian history,” said Pearl, who also studies at the University of Melbourne.

“I came to Melbourne when I was six, so I don’t know much about Chinese history.

“I feel like a blank slate with this play…We found out more about the White Australia Policy. The policy itself isn’t relevant now, but doing the play led me to reflect on my own experiences with racism, which I still encounter sometimes.”

Representation of international cultures

1938 is particularly notable for blending a dark period of Australian history with the camp and toe-tapping tunes of the musical genre. With such an unconventional mix, audiences may wonder if the musical will treat its international cultures with a comedic touch, or represent them with the appropriate gravitas.

“The portrayal is quite stereotypical,” comments ensemble member Nikky Nguyen.

“But it’s meant to be that way, it’s political satire. It shows us how Australia viewed other cultures in the community.”

Eric was initially unsure about the script as well.

“I never thought the combination [of cultures] would work, but I think the Chinese representation is effective,” he says.

“It will give the audiences a shock, since they won’t expect a Cantonese opera with Communist stylings to be in the middle of an English play!

“Different cultures all have their own distinct characteristics throughout the play, whether they’re talking, singing, or even fighting.”

Reasons to love 1938

Politics may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even if it’s all set to song and dance.

But Nikky is quick to dissipate any fears surrounding the play’s entertainment factor.

“The script is very relevant, but you don’t have to have strong political views to enjoy this,” she assures.

1938‘s appeal, according to Pearl, lies in its overarching themes.

“There are quite a few songs with all the Chinese, Italians and indigenous people coming on stage to sing together,” she says.

“I really like the unity. It’s like we’re all for one and one for all.”

Fortunately, 1938 isn’t overly sentimental in its depiction of racial harmony: after all, it’s still a satire. Be it on or off the stage, it appears that 1938 is cynical enough to realise that social issues can’t all be solved with a song.

“Nowadays, people don’t really think [racism] is an issue,” says Pearl.

“But it’s still prevalent in society even if people don’t say much about it.

“The play speaks about this subject, but in a comedic way, so it’s not overly pedagogical.”

Eric also agrees the play has the capacity to entertain and educate.

1938 provides diverse perspectives on the issue of White Australia and the Aboriginal culture,” he concludes.

“I think it will help others to understand Australian history and set a good example of how international and local students can fit in and work together.”

1938: An Opera opens 4th of October at the Open Stage, 757 Swanston Street, and runs until the 13th of October.

For bookings, visit or call (03) 9660 9666.

Or you can visit the website: