Don Bemrose may never have embarked on a music career if a spear-tackle injury hadn’t forced him to stop playing rugby league.
But after being temporarily paralysed and advised to give up contact sport – devastating news for an Aboriginal lad from a sporting family on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast – the then 12-year-old Don was forced to find another interest.
“It was quite a life-changing experience,” says Bemrose, who will take to the stage in Adelaide with State Opera SA’s premiere of Cloudstreet next week.
“But it allowed me to go into music at high school. I discovered that not everyone could sing, but I could.”
His bold new dream – to become the first Aboriginal person to sing with Opera Australia – formed after his aunt, Aboriginal elder Ruth Hegarty, showed him a documentary about opera singer Harold Blair, also a Gungarri man.
Bemrose was seduced by the power of the operatic voice and became single-minded in his determination to forge an opera career, even in the face of ridicule and ostracism from his peers.
“You are following something that isn’t the cultural norm … there was teasing, which you can get anyway as a boy following an artistic career,” he says.
“But I was pretty steadfast and I knew I was going to achieve it. I didn’t have time to entertain that stuff.”
Then, in 2008, when he sang the national anthem at the State of Origin final, Bemrose found his detractors suddenly turned into his biggest fans.
“I got calls from all around the country …
“If your dream of playing rugby league gets taken away from you, then singing at it is the next best thing”.
Bemrose went on to achieve his goal of singing for Opera Australia in 2012. He has also sung the lead in the premiere of Short Black Opera’s Pecan Summer and in The Street Theatre’s chamber opera From a Black Sky.
Now he is about to make his debut with State Opera as Bob Crab in Cloudstreet, based on Australian author Tim Winton’s novel – and for the first time, his Nana Ruth Hegarty, now in her 80s, will be there to see him perform live.
“She’s coming from Brisbane,” Bemrose says of the community worker, activist and author, with whom he lived from the age of 15 while attending music school.
“My whole journey has been inspired by her.”
Aspects of Hegarty’s early life are reflected in the plotlines of Cloudstreet, which is set between 1943 and 1963 and centres on two working-class families – the Lambs and the Pickles – who share a ramshackle house in Perth. The house was previously the home of an elderly woman who trained young Aboriginal girls to be domestic servants.
Such a practice was once commonplace in Australia. A number of Bemrose’s female relatives – including his Nana Ruth – were removed from their families and put into what were called “dormitory schools” at Queensland’s Cherbourgh Mission, where they were trained by nuns as domestics and sent out to work in households from as young as 12.
“This is the lived experience of my family,” Bemrose says.
“I’m telling the story that is my family story, so I hope audiences coming to see it get that this is real. It’s not just a fictional experience.”
In Coudstreet, the spirits of three Aboriginal girls have become trapped within the house because of the trauma they suffered. Bemrose’s character, a somewhat mysterious Aboriginal man, wants to find a way to release them.
“He connects with Fish Lamb, who also feels the spirits in the house. They work together to bring love back into the house and allow the girls to move on.
“It’s a beautiful story.”
Bemrose says that the musical created by composer and librettist George Palmer and international theatre director Gail Edwards “will blow people’s minds”.
The large cast sings in the Australian vernacular, with different aspects of the story presented in a way he describes as teasing, haunting and breathtakingly beautiful.
“Scenes are short and sharp and move on quickly from one to another – it’s an amazing journey that the audience goes on.”
The singer is a fan of Winton’s – in fact, he was in the middle of the author’s 2002 novel Dirt Music when he was offered the role in Cloudstreet. He first read Cloudstreet as a university student and also saw the stage play adaptation in Queensland.
Bemrose says one of the things he loves about Winton’s writing is that the Aboriginal storyline is treated with equal weight as other themes.
Cloudstreet the opera: a bold undertaking
“It’s not a secondary story, an old story or a different story – it’s just a story.”
When he’s not singing, Bemrose works in Aboriginal education in Canberra. Having achieved his own childhood dream, he is now passionate about helping others to do the same.
“I love that thing of inspiring kids to dream big and go big.
“Every child deserves the right to go on their journey and chose their journey.”
State Opera of SA will present Cloudstreet at Her Majesty’s Theatre from May 12-21.
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