Reconciling the past and healing the future. Aboriginal Australian soprano, actor, composer and playwright Deborah Cheetham AO believes that if Australia is curious enough it can embark on the journey of who it is.
There is a scene near the end of the opera Manon by Massenet where the lead soprano, Manon, is torn from her lover – who represents exalted love – and with that her true destiny can never be recovered. Callously deceived by opportunists, Manon falters in her faith and this ultimately leads to her tragic demise.
Scenes like this are everywhere in opera and it’s what makes the art form tower over other artistic forms for pathos or connection to our collective human suffering; both universal and obscure. Opera always tells a difficult story. Seeing opera live is to experience storytelling at its most profound level.
Recently, an NITV screening of the opera Pecan Summer, composed by Yorta Yorta woman and lead soprano, Deborah Cheetham AO, for the national Short Black Opera Company, at ACMI in Melbourne was almost sold out. It is a uniquely Australian story. Now in its seventh year, the cost of human suffering and survival was once again rendered in all its epic, tragic, scale for an audience who may not see themselves as traditional opera-goers.
During the post-screening Q&A, conductor and collaborator, Dr David Kram – who, made no in-jokes to non aficionados about Wagner or Verdi, and according to Deborah was a great mentor to the child and adult singers alike – spoke with passion about Pecan Summer’s reach and how screenings, both nationally and internationally, might help it gain the wider recognition it deserves.
Deborah’s original idea for the opera came from the story of the Cummeragunja Mission Station walk-off in 1939 by indigenous people due to the appalling conditions there and lead, quite astonishingly, to a wholly expanded tale on many aspects our nation’s hidden history. It included the story of the stolen generations, but also the creation of the Dhungala or Murray River that is literally danced by the character Gomuku, into being.
I asked her about the collective amnesia around stories of country and the mythology of the non-indigenous Australian story in relation to indigenous people’s struggle for recognition.
I suggest that Pecan Summer is also a successful project in diversity; since the Short Black Opera Company – co-founded with partner, company manager and pianist, Toni Lalich, has created a celebrated artist development program, and opportunities for award-winning indigenous artists such as Shauntai Batzke, Marcus Corowa and Jessica Hitchcock, whilst also engaging the talents of non-indigenous singers Rosamund Illing, Laura King, Michael Butchard and Jonathan Welch AM (who played a version of her adoptive father in Minister Michael).
It also has its own children’s choir (Dhungala), and Short Black frequently visits communities to invite young indigenous people to ‘fly’ in a creative and educational context where they are valued. But here, Deborah gently corrects me. ‘You could call it that but its more a reflection of ‘our’ life within Australia,’ she says. ‘This is what it actually looks like. It’s nothing that we dream up. It’s real, it’s what we are’.
And it wasn’t a hard choice to cast Eddie Mulliaumaseali’i (with whom she’d worked on Andrew McKinnon’s productions of Porgy and Bess and Carmen Jones), John Wayne Parsons or Barry Ryan OAM, for that matter. She has followed opera both nationally and internationally since the 1970’s, so was acutely aware of who would be right fit for her opera, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Deborah fell hard and fast in love with opera at the age of 14, and dedicated herself to a 20-year career as a freelance artist after graduating from NSW Conservatorium of Music. As an adult she saw what opera – the pinnacle of performing arts in her eyes – was able to achieve so she decided, undaunted by naysayers, to compose Pecan Summer. The opera ends profoundly with Kevin Rudd’s stolen generation apology– to a crowd of performers gathered in Federation Square: a distinct case of art imitating life.
There is, however a sixteen year gap between the stolen generation speech he made in 2008, and the celebrated speech that the then prime minister, Paul Keating, made at Redfern park in 1992 which dealt with the challenges faced by indigenous Australians and that impressed Deborah at a deep level. He was the first serving prime minister to put words to those who have suffered from the intergenerational horrors and legacy of colonial practices. She feels every Australian should be able to recite lines from it.
Deborah plans to complete a song cycle or short opera for television based on Keating’s speech in the future. The idea began as a workshop four years ago. ‘It needs to be an opera and it needs to be on TV’ she says, determined to get these messages out there as part of her vision of Australia’s journey to know itself through the power of opera.
At 53, it is a testimony to Deborah’s strength, humility and determination that sees her champion and pioneer contemporary operatic works that erase the obscurity of our important shared national stories.
In 1964 her own story was of being abandoned in a cardboard box by her own mother. Though fortunately, salvation arrived early and, taking home their three-week-old baby, her newly adoptive Baptist parents vowed to give her a life filled with all the advantages that indigenous children were said to have been denied – love, housing, education, attention, community, family and belonging.
Whilst the indigenous people of Australia were being classified as flora and fauna, Deborah was growing up in a tightly held community under the direct guidance of God, and with earthly satisfaction to be discovered not in things and place, but people and relationships.
She was the only indigenous child in the family of three adopted children and she was brought up exactly the same way as her siblings. But there was something about Deborah that marked her difference from them.
It was later discovered her mother, Monica Little, had not, in fact, abandoned her child. In reality, Monica’s child had been stolen from her. Deborah’s young life began at Inasmuch Children’s Home in Falls Creek, New South Wales. A quick internet search will take you to the government-run Find and Connect site, which provides history and information about Australian orphanages, children’s homes and other institutions. There’s such an awful sadness and poignancy in that.
Deborah met her indigenous family at the age of 21, but neither party was prepared for the culture gap. She’d recently been rejected by her church community for coming out as a gay woman, and whilst her adopted mother Marjorie graciously came to accept this, her community did not. She was asked to resign from her position managing the choir and lost some 300 friends, almost overnight.
At around the age of 30, Deborah says that she had a kind of breakdown and was forced to ‘change some of the wiring in my brain’ during this time. She had embarked on fully connecting with her Aboriginal background but her mother Marjorie could never forgive her for what she saw as a betrayal. In her eyes they had saved the young child from a life of obscurity and deprivation.
Today however, we are discussing actress Deborah Mailman’s solo performance in The Seven Stages of Grieving first directed by Wesley Enoch in 1995 in Brisbane. Deborah says that ‘it’s so complex and nuanced [indigenous culture], there’s a profound world culture that exists in those piles of sand’. Each pile of sand in the performance of Home Story represents culture, song, family, tradition, dance – and skin, or family groups. Mailman’s final line in the performance is – now imagine when the children are taken away from this. Are you with me?
Refusing to be an outsider, but nevertheless still affected by inequality and the fall-out from the recent campaign around marriage equality – the highly accomplished artist, mentor, and Aboriginal woman, has been in a ten year committed relationship with her partner Toni Lalich.
She stands on principle as an indigenous leader, and an impassioned advocate for breaking the silence around indigenous culture, and challenging perceptions. It comes at a cost she says, but it’s a sacrifice she is willing to make. On the cost of being Deborah Cheetham she says, ‘Get to the core of who you are. Understand my story, but understand me, Aboriginal or lesbian’. ‘There is a silent majority [of Australians]. I want to activate them. Australia wants to be better than this. Not being better turns Aboriginal kids into non-Aboriginals. We don’t need to be more non-indigenous. We want understanding’.
‘We need to teach all indigenous kids to see their value,’ she says. ‘We should be learning from these acts (singing workshops with Short Black Opera), and see these kids really ‘fly’ when they sing. We have absolutely shown them they are the best. But by the end of the week they go back to a community (general population) that doesn’t value them.’
Deborah Cheetham is currently working on casting for her newest composition Eumeralla, a War Requiem For Peace, to premiere in October this year. It is a project about healing wounds and testimonials that unite the voices of non-indigenous and indigenous Australians towards greater understanding. Founded in 2008, the Short Black Opera Company currently receives no Australia Council funding.