Sydney Opera House

First Indigenous opera at The Arts Centre

First Indigenous opera opens at Arts Centre

Soprano Deborah Cheetham fell in love with opera on 17 February 1979, while attending an Australian Opera Merry Widow production in which Dame Joan Sutherland performed the title role. She was 14 years old at the time. Since then, she has become Australia’s foremost Indigenous soprano, founded Short Black Opera Company, and composed Australia’s first Indigenous opera, Pecan Summer, which premiered in October 2010 and opens at The Arts Centre, Melbourne this September.

Cheetham, who has built her career on concert repertoire, is fascinated by stories, which is why she always tries to base her recitals on narrative. An early highlight of this approach was the 1997 one-woman show, White Baptist Abba Fan. Partly sung, partly spoken, it told the story of how, as a member of the stolen generation, Cheetham found her biological mother.  After White Baptist she was ready for a full-length opera and she already had the title – Pecan Summer. All she needed was a good story.

Aboriginal community elders told her about the 1939 Cummeragunja Mission walk-off, the first mass strike of Indigenous people in which more than 200 mostly Yorta Yorta men, women and children left the Cummeragunja station in NSW, crossed the Dhungala (Murray River), and camped to protest against their treatment and demand the removal of the station's manager. Many settled in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, which is where Pecan Summer had its premiere.

The opera tells the story of a feisty 11-year-old girl, Alice, and her family, who take part in the walk-off and camp on the banks of the Murray. Alice goes into town looking for adventure, where she is captured by child protection authorities. She is "rescued" by the Baptist minister's wife who, unable to have her own children, decides to keep her.

Fifty percent of the audience that attended Pecan Summer’s first run were Indigenous and most had never experienced opera before. “This story belonged to the audience; there was a really deep connection,” Cheetham says. Many of the Shepparton children recruited for the children’s choir were descendents of people who had lived through the walk-off.

Moreover, while researching the events, Cheetham discovered that her own grandparents, whom she never knew, were part of the events. “I was writing an opera about my own family.”  She feels strongly that opera composers should be amplifying Australian stories. “I’m a great fan of Wagner’s Ring, or any of the other great operas in the repertoire, but our own stories resonate.”

If audiences enjoy stories with which they can identify, they also connect with stories populated by complex, multi-dimensional characters. Cheetham found inspiration for some of the Pecan Summer narrative in her own life, always trying to acknowledge the complexity of the people in it. “The Baptist minister and his wife are based on my adoptive parents, who were good people and who treated me very well,” she says. Rosamund Illing and Jonathon Welch, who created the roles in 2010, will be performing them again in Melbourne next month. Cheetham performs the role of Ellen, Alice’s mother. 

The opera’s title also refers to personal experience. “In some parts of Australian society, there’s this preoccupation with how black your skin has to be before you can call yourself Aboriginal,” Cheetham says. “I used the word ‘pecan’ to describe the light colour of my own skin, which I grew up having to defend.  In the opera it became a metaphor for ways in which Aboriginal people continuously have to defend their Aboriginality, their skin colour, and just about everything else.”

Cheetham hopes that Pecan Summer will encourage more Aboriginal people to engage with classical music. Its original run featured 15 Indigenous singers, found during two years of auditions held across the country. Opera Australia offered to help to train them. “It’s a wonderful partnership between the flagship company and Australia’s newest opera company.” 

A year after that first run, two of the 15 singers are living in Melbourne, where they are studying at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Opera Australia has provided them with the opportunity to be mentored by bass baritone Eddie Muliau.

“There’s much Aboriginal achievement to be celebrated in Australia, but generally the media focus is not on that," says Cheetham. "If Pecan Summer helps to shine a light on Aboriginal accomplishment, that would be wonderful. Like Maori people, who have produced great singers, we have the vocal chords and the musicality. There have to be great voices out there that are going unheard.”

Not for long, if this trailblazing woman can help it. Years ago, after completing her Bachelor of Music Education at the University of NSW, Cheetham won a scholarship that included three months’ training with coaches at New York’s Met. She remembers that her time there “encouraged me to find excellence in myself, and to nurture it in others”.

Having found it in herself, she is well and truly nurturing excellence in others.

Pecan Summer runs at the Arts Centre Playhouse from 28-30 September: Click here for more information and tickets