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Australia’s first Indigenous opera set for Adelaide debut

Richard Watts

The score for soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham’s labour of love will be performed by the Adelaide Art Orchestra.
Australia’s first Indigenous opera set for Adelaide debut

Photo by Robert Jefferson 

Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer had its world premiere on country in the Victorian town of Mooroopna in October 2010. The story of the first mass strike by Aboriginal people in Australian history, the opera details the 1939 walk-off from Cummeragunga Mission, when some 200 people of the Yorta Yorta nation, pushed to breaking point by the draconian conditions enforced by the New South Wales Aboriginal Protection Board, walked out of the mission and across the Murray River to re-settle in northern Victoria.


Acclaimed as ‘a milestone in Australian opera’ by Opera Britannia, Pecan Summer encompasses 60,000 years of Aboriginal history, taking in both Dreamtime stories and recent history, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008; and provides ‘an intimate window into the great tragedy of the Stolen Generations and the destruction of so many families,’ according to ArtsHub reviewer Ronald McCoy.

But when the Opera is revived in Adelaide in July audiences will see a production that has evolved significantly since its 2010 premiere, Cheetham said.

‘We started out not only to create an Indigenous opera and tell an Australian story, but also to develop Indigenous talent within our company, Short Black Opera, and that is the great point of difference that audiences will be able to enjoy in Adelaide. We have now a number of our cast members who’ve not only graduated from performing arts degrees but also have been the recipients of prestigious scholarships and now are quite well known on the opera scene in their home towns. Really what’s evolved in those four years has been a remarkable leap forward in the quality and the development of the singers.’

Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta composer and soprano and herself a member of the Stolen Generations, chose to tell this nationally significant story from an intimate perspective, focussing on the lives of an Aboriginal woman, Ella, whose daughter Alice is abducted to live with a white family.

That combination of the personal and the political, the grand and the domestic, is one of the things opera does best, Cheetham explained.  

‘It’s like Aida. Generally people would think of Verdi’s Aida as this epic, grand opera and indeed there are scenes of grandeur – the triumphal march for instance – but the rest of the opera is intimate; relationship-based. That’s what brings the scale to a level that audiences can connect directly with, as well as being blown away by the larger scale grand themes, and Pecan Summer certainly has both of those.’

In a remarkable case of life imitating art, Cheetham discovered an important truth about her own family while researching Pecan Summer’s story.

‘When I started out to create this opera, I didn’t then know that my own Aboriginal family were connected to it. And that’s something that was revealed to me through the process of researching the story. It became a project of such significance for me personally; for me to understand where I come from. And when we understand where we come from, we have a greater sense of where we might go, and who we are, and why we do the things we do,’ she said.

That applies to the country as a whole as well as to us all as individuals, Cheetham continued.

‘There is so much of our 226 years of shared history that non-Indigenous Australians are not connected to, don’t know anything about. I think for me at the moment I am really trying to encourage Australia to act its age. This continent has the longest continuing culture in the world, and I want Australians more generally to appreciate that. We keep singing in that anthem of ours that we are “young and free” and neither of those statements are entirely accurate.

‘If you come and see Pecan Summer it’s an opportunity to deeper your understanding of our shared history, and will spark an interest in audiences, I think, to find out more for themselves. If they didn’t know about the walk-off from Cummeragunga Mission for instance, how much more is there to find out? And that’s certainly been the case up until now – audiences have really started to engage with our shared histories and helped to advance people’s deeper knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal culture.’

For its Adelaide season, which follows seasons in Perth and Melbourne, Pecan Summer will feature performances by both established artists and emerging stars, including Jonathon Welch (Choir of Hard Knocks), Rosamund Illing (Opera Australia) and Cheetham herself, as well as Yorta Yorta bass baritone Tiriki Onus, Adelaide-based mezzo soprano Vonda Last, and tenor Robert Taylor.

Short Black Opera presents
Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
3-5 July

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts