Hitting a high note for reconciliation
Deborah Cheetham says there is much to sing about. Photo: Angela Wylie
OPERA singer Deborah Cheetham stands up at the cafe table to make her point: “I'm actually not that tall,” she says, “and I'm Aboriginal.” OK, so that explains the name of her three-year-old Melbourne company for indigenous singers: Short Black Opera.
But what about the title of her ground-breaking opus, Pecan Summer, Australia's first Aboriginal opera? “That's the colour of my skin — pecan,” says Cheetham, the daughter of an Irish father and an Aboriginal mother. You have to love her impish chutzpah but, even in multicultural Melbourne, Cheetham says her pecan hue has caused problems.
“I was in a city department store waiting to be served,” she recalls. “There was an Asian woman waiting, too. The saleswoman looked at us and turned away. When a blonde white-skinned woman came in, the sales lady served her.”
Cheetham, a niece of recently deceased singer Jimmy Little, was three weeks old when she was adopted out to a white family in Sydney. “My father left before I was born,” she says.
Her musicality – Cheetham's superb soprano voice was heard by an estimated one billion people when she sang in Sydney at the rugby World Cup match in 2003 – found no nurture with her adoptive parents.
“They were not musical,” she says. “All I heard on the radio was John Laws.” So it was not until February 1979, when Cheetham went to the Sydney Opera House, that she awoke to the marvels of the operatic art.
Later this month, Cheetham will sing at a Melbourne Town Hall concert — with Monash University's Academy Orchestra and didgeridoo player William Barton — to mark Reconciliation Week. It is an annual salute that bookmarks two great advances for indigenous Australians: the 1967 referendum that gave them a vote and the 1982 Mabo court ruling that recognised native land rights.
“Before 1967, Aboriginal people were seen as part of the fauna and flora,” says Cheetham, “they were not included in the census as human beings. There have been so many steps forward since then. One of my major goals is to separate the word 'Aboriginal' from the word 'issues' and because nature abhors a vacuum, you need to replace it with something. So I want to say: what about 'Aboriginal achievement'? Even before 1967, so many great leaders came forward. Great leadership was shown, for example, in the 1939 walk-off at Cummeragunja mission.”
Among Australia's indigenous people the Cummeragunja episode, where 200 Aborigines left their NSW mission in protest at conditions and walked 80 kilometres into Victoria, is regarded as a pivotal event.
This dramatic exodus, in defiance of NSW authorities, was the inspiration for Cheetham's opera and, unexpectedly, proved an epiphany for Cheetham herself. In researching the walk-off, she discovered her maternal grandparents, and an infant Jimmy Little, had been part of it.
Pecan Summer premiered in 2010 in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, where the Cummeragunja people settled. It was staged in Melbourne last year.
However, recent headlines cast a sad shadow over Reconciliation Week 2012 – the mounting rate of suicides among young Aborigines. A few weeks ago, Aboriginal leader Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian noted in alarm: “The number of indigenous suicides in the Kimberley last year exceeded the Australian Defence Force fatalities in Afghanistan.”
Cheetham, a contender for Australian of the Year in 2010, says the Aboriginal despair is not unique: “There were suicides by farmers during the drought. Wherever there is economic disadvantage – through severe weather patterns or, in the case of Aboriginals, through legislation over 200 years — you will find a lack of that essential ingredient: hope.
"That's why concerts like this come in to their own. It shows Aboriginal people there are non-Aboriginal people who want to progress reconciliation.”
And then there is her Short Black Opera, based at the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts in Southbank but with tentacles stretching as far as Shepparton where Cheetham runs an Aboriginal choir.
This year, three Aboriginal singers supported by Short Black Opera will be graduating in music. Deborah Cheetham is now working on a song cycle based on Paul Keating's famous Redfern speech in 1992.
"I wouldn't say every voice can be taught to sing opera," she says, "but Aboriginal people are accustomed to singing acoustic music and their broader faces and cheekbones are well suited, too. All they need is the opportunity."
The Monash Academy Orchestra's Reconciliation Week concert will be held at 2.30pm at the Melbourne Town Hall on May 27.