Home' LOTL : SepOct16 Contents DEBORAH
Australia’s first Indigenous
tells the important story of
the Cummeragunja walk-
off in February 1939 by
Short Black Opera, Australia’s national Indigenous
opera company, is presenting a one-night-
only season of Deborah Cheetham’s landmark
opera, Pecan Summer, on 12 September at The
Sydney Opera House. LOTL caught up with
Deborah to talk about:all things opera, being the
artistic director of Short Black Opera, and her
relationship with her accompanist...
We start off by talking about Pecan Summer
heading to The Sydney Opera House.
“ I ’ve been out of Sydney for ten years and
Melbourne’s such a great place for what we do,
in terms of the theatre and the arts, but Sydney’s
always going to feel like home. I ’m definitely playing
to my hometown this year,” Deborah explains.
Deborah goes on to explain that the world
premiere of Pecan Summer took place in 2010
in Mooroopna, a small regional town in Victoria.
It was the first time that indigenous opera had
been performed in Australia. The company then
took the opera to Melbourne in 2011 and Perth in
2012 before taking a year off to build by finding
and developing more singers. The last time Pecan
Summer was performed was in 2014 in Adelaide, so
the company is incredibly excited to be performing
it again at The Sydney Opera House.
“ I really feel that we’re making a contribution to
opera in general, by taking an Australian opera to
the spiritual home of opera in Australia,” she told
LOTL. “ This is our fifth production, which is record
breaking in every sense, and I’m really proud to be
making this contribution.”
The contribution that Deborah has already made to
Australian opera is actually huge.
After 20 years of working as a freelance opera
singer, Deborah noticed that there were no other
Indigenous opera singers building careers around
her. She decided,then, that she’d have to be the
one to encourage other singers on their path and
to help them develop their careers. “ I thought
the best way to do that was to write a story that
was relevant to Indigenous Australians, and all
Australians. Aboriginal people have rarely seen
themselves represented in the media in any sort
of positive light, so I wanted to use opera, my
medium, as a way to tell their story.”
Pecan Summer tells the story of the Cummeragunja
walk-off in February 1939. Deborah explains that in
1939 Cummeragunja mission station was home
to approximately 250 YortaYorta people who had
endured 70 years of dispossession. The mission
manager was thoroughly corrupt and things at
the station became increasingly unbearable. The
YortaYorta people decided to go on strike and to
cross the border from NSW into Victoria. Most of
them made their way to Shepparton, which was
about 85 kilometres away, and they set up camp
there for the next 43 years. The story is told from
the perspective of the central character, Alice.
“ When we first meet Alice, it’s 2006 and she’s an
old woman. The Old Alice takes us back in time to
1939 when she was a kid. I wanted to tell a story
where we began with an Aboriginal family in its
entirety, together, living their lives. That’s a scene
that is very rarely represented. You never see
Aboriginal people in a loving, caring, safe family
environment,” she says.
Deborah explains how important it was to her to
write an opera, which showcased the talents of
many Aboriginal artists—at the one time—telling
their story through their own words.
Along with being a proud Indigenous woman,
an incredibly talented and accomplished
opera performer, and a generous facilitator for
the development of others’ careers, Deborah
Cheetham is also a proud member of the LGBTIQ
community. Deborah and her partner, and
accompanist, Toni Lalich, have recently celebrated
their ten-year anniversary.
“ We are incredibly fortunate to be able to have a
company that is built around what we both love,
opera. It’s one of the first things that I knew of Toni
and it was one of the first dates we ever went on,”
Deborah told us.
She explains that Short Black Opera and its
productions simply wouldn’t be possible without
Toni. “ In a way it’s brought us closer than we ever
could have imagined. Short Black Opera helps
people find their way on this journey and that’s a
pretty special accomplishment to share.”
Short Black Opera truly is doing important and
amazing work for opera, for aspiring opera
performers and also for Australia.
Pecan Summer tells a story that every one of us
should know as Australians. It’s on at The Sydney
Opera House on Monday 12 September 8:00 pm.
You can book online at sydneyoperahouse.com or
by phone on +(61 2) 9250 7777.
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