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Sydney Opera House

Turandot debut a dream come true

Turandot debut a dream come true for Aboriginal baritone

For baritone Don Bemrose (pictured right), a member of the chorus in OA’s revival of Graeme Murphy’s production of Turandot, which opens at the Sydney Opera House this month, making his debut with the national company is the realisation of a life-long dream.

Bemrose, a member of OA’s Indigenous Development Program and chorus member for the production’s Melbourne run, decided on a career in opera when at age 12 he heard Aboriginal tenor and activist Harold Blair sing ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot.

The year before, a spinal injury had forced him to give up playing rugby league, but music teachers Yve Cruickshank and Lesley Neuman discovered that he had a good voice and auditioned him for a place in the Sunshine Coast Regional School Choir. “When my Nana [Aboriginal elder Ruth Hegarty] heard that I was singing in a choir, she found me a documentary on Harold Blair,” he remembers. “Hearing an Aboriginal man sing in Italian, in this beautiful tenor voice, just transfixed me. I will never forget the power and richness of that voice.”

Bemrose was also inspired by the fact that, like him, Blair was a Gungarri man from Queensland. Blair’s career never fulfilled its early promise, and Bemrose resolved that he would carry on the older man’s legacy. “I wanted to live the big opera career, achieve what he couldn’t achieve because of the era in which he lived.”

Two decades later, about to make his OA debut in Turandot, Bemrose is overcome by emotion when asked if it all feels like a dream come true. “On the first day of Turandot rehearsals, sitting in the same room with some of the best voices in Australia, and singing with them…I felt truly blessed. The sound that was coming from that room was just phenomenal.”

But much had to happen between the decision that he made at age 12, and his OA debut. By the time Bemrose was in his final year at school, he was still convinced that opera was his future, yet coming from a family that had no tradition of Western classical music, he felt himself at a disadvantage. “At home we listened to Country and Western and we didn’t have a piano,” he recalls. “My brother and sister loved the 80s’ classics: Midnight Oil, Madonna. I also loved that music – I still do – but it didn’t speak to that part of your soul that says, This is what you need to do with your life.” 

In his final year at school, Bemrose auditioned for the Queensland Conservatorium, which suggested that he took lessons with singing teacher Gloria Ward, then audition again. He did so two years later, and was accepted. 

Yet in the three years he spent studying music at the Conservatorium, Bemrose gradually began to realise that he was becoming a different kind of singer from the one he’d envisaged.  “My dream had been to finish what Harold Blair had started. He lived in an era when people were not comfortable with a black singer having a political voice. But for me it is very important to be an Aboriginal opera singer; I have a strong desire to be a voice in my community and to help others to be successful too.  After three years of studying music, I knew that I wasn’t ready to be that singer, and yet, the singer I was becoming instead did not reflect who I was.”

Walking away from a life-long ideal was gut-wrenching, but Bemrose did just that, choosing to break from the past and become a life-saving instructor on the Sunshine Coast. It was a pleasant existence. But one day one of his students, who he was encouraging to follow their dreams, turned around and asked:  “Was your dream to be a life-saving instructor on the Sunshine Coast?”

“It was an innocent question, but it stopped me in my tracks,” Bemrose remembers. When shortly afterwards Aboriginal soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham contacted him with a view to involving him in her first opera, Pecan Summer, he knew that that was what he wanted to do. He left life-saving to do a theatre gig with producer/director Nadine McDonald-Dowd, and put himself on the map the next year when singing the national anthem at the 2008 State of Origin in Queensland. “My participation in that event got a lot of media coverage; it also made me realise how much support I had from my community:  from all over the country, people contacted me to say how proud they were of me.” 

A few months later he left Brisbane to work with Cheetham on Pecan Summer and complete his music studies at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts.  “It was the opportunity of a lifetime, the one that could help me become the person I’d wanted to be since I was 12,” he remembers. He worked on Pecan Summer with Cheetham for three years, developing the lead role of James for its première in 2010, and for the Melbourne season in late 2011.

Meanwhile, it was time to audition for OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terraccini and Chorus Master Michael Black. “The audition took place in 2010, the year in which OA received funding to create an Indigenous Development Program to create opportunities for indigenous singers to work with OA’s artists. The Program offers them contact with the Company and provides singing lessons and coaching with members of its music staff. Bemrose says: “Eddie Muliau, a Samoan singer who also came to opera late, has been mentoring me and three other Indigenous singers, which has been immensely helpful.”

The Indigenous Development Program reflects Opera Australia’s desire for as many people from the widest demographic to be part of the extraordinary art form that is opera, according to OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini. “Don and his fellow members of the Program are part of our vision to see in our audiences, on our stages and in our orchestra pits, the faces of new and contemporary Australians, the faces of Aboriginal Australians.”

Besides the extra chorus role in Turandot, Bemrose has been offered Papageno in the Victorian season of Oz Opera’s Schools Company run of The Magic Flute this year. “Finally it’s all happening!” he says, laughing incredulously. “This is our national opera company…and I get to work with it! But you know what? I’ve got a lot to learn – there are many hours of rehearsing ahead!” 

Having rehearsed with the Turandot cast for the Sydney rehearsal period, Bemrose now has a couple of months off, and will resume rehearsals for the Melbourne Autumn season, in which he will make his OA debut.   

His ambition is to sing the big Romantic roles one day. “I’m a lyric baritone and Verdi and Puccini are my natural territory. It’s fitting that my first experience of performing publicly as a professional singer was with Deborah Cheetham, doing the Germont/Violetta duet from La Traviata.” 

Bemrose’s many supporters are certainly keeping their fingers crossed that that Verdi performance was the first of many.