Opera is a powerful tool for creating a deeper understanding of Aboriginal history and culture, says soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham.
“I think we’re at a critical point in our shared history in Australia where more and more people are hungry to know our history … both the shared history of the last 230 years and the long history of the first people of this land, the Indigenous people,” she says.
Next month, South Australian audiences will have their first opportunity to see Cheetham’s Indigenous opera Pecan Summer, which tells the story of how 200 members of the Yorta Yorta nation walked off the NSW Cummeragunga Mission Station in 1939 in protest at the harsh and inhumane conditions. The work encompasses 60,000 thousands of years of Indigenous history and 70 years of dispossession.
Cheetham, who is currently working on a large choral work about the Gunditjmara people who fought for their land in the Eumeralla Wars in Victoria in the 19th century, wants to help Australians connect with a history that is not widely known and has long been denied.
“There has never been a better time,” she says emphatically.
“I think that for Australia to mature as a nation, to reach its full potential, we need to know our long history; we need to understand the incredible asset that Aboriginal history is. Opera is a fantastic way to tell that.
“Music has this incredible power to transcend the analytical and go straight to the heart; it’s a fabulous way of sharing our stories.”
For too long, she says, Aboriginal culture has been presented to Australia and the rest of the world as a liability: “How often do you see the word ‘issue’ linked to ‘Aboriginal’?”
Cheetam first heard the story of the Cummeragunga walk-off in 2007 and immediately thought it was worthy of an opera – the first mass strike by Aboriginal people, encompassing heroic leadership, resilience and courage, as well heartbreaking stories of the Stolen Generation.
As a member of the Stolen Generation herself, the story touched Cheetham on a personal level. The niece of musician Jimmy Little has faced an arduous journey trying to connect with her own family history.
“I found out that my Aboriginal grandmother and grandfather had been part of the walk-off.
“It’s just further proof that there is so much more to know.”
When Pecan Summer is presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre from July 3-5, the cast of 35 will include Cheetam, Jonathon Welch (Choir of Hard Knocks), Rosamund Illing (Opera Australia), Yorta Yorta bass baritone Tiriki Onus, Adelaide-based mezzo soprano Vonda Last and tenor Robert Taylor.
It also incorporates members of the Dhungala Children’s Choir, many of who are Yorta Yorta, including great-grandchildren of the people who walked off the mission. They were discovered through Short Black Opera for Kids, an offshoot of the not-for-profit company Short Black Opera, which Cheetham created in 2010 to uncover and develop Indigenous singing talent.
Cheetham says she wrote Pecan Summer to help both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people connect with their history.
“It will give you a richer and deeper sense of who you are as an Australian to come and see this opera.
“We have the longest continuing culture in the world here … there’s so much more we could be telling through the world of opera.
“Opera can seem so far removed from our day-to-day experience. In this, Australians will see themselves reflected. The final scene is set on Apology Day, and most people can remember what they were doing that day.”
Short Black Opera, accompanied by the Adelaide Art Orchestra, will present Pecan Summer at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide from July 3-5.
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