When the black lady sang

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Deborah Cheetham onstageEarly this year I booked tickets for a concert featuring Deborah Cheetham. I knew that Cheetham was an Indigenous soprano, composer and educator and recognised her photo on the flyer advertising the event, even though I had never seen her perform live on stage.

The program for the concert, 'Til the Black Lady Sings', included works by Vaughan Williams, Puccini, Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Lehar and Gershwin, as well as an aria from Cheetham's opera, Pecan Summer. I noted, in passing, that it was the opening event of the 2014 Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival.

The evening turned out to be a unique, personal journey, portrayed through music by Cheetham of her life to date. She began by recalling her first memories of hearing, as a three-year-old, her adoptive mother singing a hymn in a Baptist church. There was a haunting quality of times past when Cheetham sang some of the verses.

Twelve years later in 1979 she heard Dame Joan Sutherland in The Merry Widow at the Sydney Opera House and was swept away, not only by the magnificence of Sutherland's voice but also by a dream of singing opera. It was only later, however, that this seemingly unreachable goal became grounded in the realm of possibility when she saw Afro-American soprano, Leona Mitchell, singing Tosca. Mitchell became the role model Cheetham clung to from that point when she realised that being black was no barrier to singing any number of roles.

This awakening was still evident in Cheetham's splendid rendition of Tosca's 'Vissi d'Arte', and the audience was aware of the perfection she achieved. But just when it seemed nothing could surpass the height of emotion in this work, the next aria she sang, 'Senza Mamma' from Puccini's Suor Angelica, did just that.

The aria describes Angelica's grief when she learns that the child she was forced to give up as a young unmarried woman has died. It was Cheetham's first performance of this heart-wrenching work and she dedicated it to both of her mothers — her birth mother, Monica, and her adoptive mother, Marjorie. Cheetham is a member of the Stolen Generations, taken from her mother when she was three weeks old by the Salvation Army. Her adoptive mother was unaware of this, believing that the baby she chose had been abandoned.

The tragic nature of this story was a stark reminder of a shameful period in Australian history, justified at the time by the misguided belief of those in authority that what they were doing was for the best. Six of Monica's nine children were taken from her, and Marjorie lived in fear of being rejected by her adopted daughter if she ever made contact with her Aboriginal mother.

Cheetham was in her 30s when she was reunited with her birth mother. This was not only a profound moment for her but also the beginning of her understanding of herself as a Yorta Yorta woman. She also met extended family members, including her uncle, iconic Indigenous musician Jimmy Little and an aunt, Frances Matheson. It was this aunt who helped her piece together more of her family history.

At the time she was in the throes of composing her opera, Pecan Summer, based on the 1939 walkout by Aboriginals from the Cummeragunja Mission protesting the loss of their land, language and children. Matheson informed her that her grandparents, James and Sissy Little, took part in this exodus and the crossing of the Dhungala (Murray River) from New South Wales into Victoria.

Pecan Summer premiered in 2010 and its success led to the creation of the Short Black Opera Company, which fosters the development of Indigenous opera singers. A member of that company, bass baritone Triki Onus, was a guest artist at the concert and sang an aria, 'Biami Creation Story', from the work. A new production is scheduled for July in Adelaide.

The final act of Pecan Summer includes a recording of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's National Apology to the Stolen Generations. Cheetham recalled going to Melbourne's Federation Square with her partner in music and life, pianist Toni Lalich, to witness the apology. She described it as having the truth of her existence recognised: 'It was no small thing for me.' Cheetham's next project is the composition of a choral work in the style of a war requiem in honour of Aboriginal people who died fighting for their land.

Ten days after the concert I went to hear two compositions performed on the Federation Bells in Birrarung Marr as part of the Indigenous Arts Festival — 'Eternal Birrarung' by Cheetham and 'All Bells That Ends Well' by James Henry. Coincidentally, the Sustainable Living Festival was also on that day and Reconciliation Victoria had a stand promoting recognition of Aboriginal people and their history in the Australian Constitution. I signed up for their newsletter and I suspect that hearing Cheetham sing and tell her story influenced me to do so.


Maureen O'Brien headshotMaureen O'Brien did research and writing for the Penguin reference book, Chronicle of Australia. Recently she has had articles published in The Swag, the quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia.

Topic tags: Maureen O'Brien, Deborah Cheetham, Stolen Generations, Kevin Rudd, National Apology

 

 

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Bel canto, Deborah.
Pam | 12 March 2014


Maureen thank-you for sharing with us Deborah Cheetham's poignant story. I wept as I remembered a beautiful friend who was one of the stolen generation, In her career as a singer may Deborah reach the heights.
Marie O'Leary | 13 March 2014


Thanks Maureen. A lovely weave of song, story & personal response. Cheetham is compelling personality. A really enjoyable read.
Name | 14 March 2014


I had the privilege of working with Deborah back in 1993 . She had clear ambitions then and it is great to see and follow her story. When I am in a " boasting mood" I tell our grandkids , " I sang with Deborah Cheetham whose uncle was Jimmy Little." Then I tell them the story of this amazing family. Thanks for sharing your experience .
Peter Collins | 23 November 2016


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