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Indigenous opera -

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Deborah Cheetham is now one of the country's revered sopranos. Cheetham has just written an
all-indigenous opera, titled Pecan Summer and unearthed some talented up and comers to share the
limelight with her.

Transcript

TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: Deborah Cheetam is now one of the country's revered sopranos, but she had
to battle to reach her goal of Australia's first aboriginal opera singer.

Determined to make the path easier for her Indigenous brothers and sisters, she's written an
all-Indigenous opera titled 'Pecan Summer' and unearthed some talented up-and-comers to share the
limelight with her.

Along the way, Deborah Cheetam, a member of the Stolen Generation, also shone some light on her own
family history.

Kirstin Murray reports.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: All roads have led to 'Pecan Summer', even long before I knew
there was a road, long before I was looking.

KIRSTIN MURRAY, REPORTER: For Deborah Cheetham, this opera's been a lifetime in the making. For
Australia's Indigenous community, it's taken generations to reach this day.

TIRIKI ONUS, SNGER: So empowering. We're not just playing the black tracker in someone else's
story. We're really out there telling our own story. Whether or not Deborah I think knows quite
what she's done here yet, I don't know, but this I think is gonna be the first step on a really big
road for Aboriginal people in general.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Over the past three years, this group's been preparing for their history-making
roles. But staging an Indigenous opera's proven a hard task for the artistic director, until now,
the only Indigenous opera singer in the country.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: It's never made any sense to me why there weren't more, because we're actually
built to sing acoustically. It's the only way we did sing. ... Really it's about disadvantage,
isn't it? It's about another gap that needs to be closed.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: A national search unearthed promising talent, some who'd harboured lifelong dreams
of singing on stage.

SINGER: Most voices just needed a little formal training.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Did you ever think that you'd be in an opera?

SINGER: Never. Never in your wildest dreams - at all.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: In her bid to break new ground, Deborah Cheetham looked to the past. 'Pecan Summer'
tells the story of the 1939 Cummeragunja walkoff, when hundreds of Yorta Yorta people left their
homes in a mass protest against the harsh and inhumane conditions on the mission.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: And when I heard about 200 men, women and children walking off their land,
crossing the Dungala, or the Murray River as we call it now, from NSW into Victoria, I just
thought, "This is it. This is my story."

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Musician Jimmy Little was just a child when his family left Cummeragunja. The
walkoff's a tale he grew up with, but he says it's time the general population heard more about
what his people endured.

JIMMY LITTLE, SINGER: Other countries are wondering why Indigenous Australians, the first
Australians were always protesting and looking for a better deal. So we need to tell the story. It
wasn't taught in school.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Late last year the opera trainees journeyed to Yorta Yorta country to better
appreciate the experiences of the characters they'd soon play.

JESSICA HITCHCOCK, SINGER: It wasn't really until I came here that I really understood my culture
and what it really meant to be indigenous to Australia.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: But it was the group's leader who'd earlier made the biggest discovery of all
during a conversation with a local elder.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: And her first question to me was, "Who's your family?" Well, I'm a member of the
Stolen Generations. ... But the critical piece of information I have is that Jimmy Little is my
mother's brother. So when you're Jimmy Little's niece, that's quite handy, 'cause everybody else in
the Aboriginal community knows how they're connected to Jimmy Little.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Suddenly, the opera became deeply personal when a missing piece of her family
heritage was revealed. Deborah Cheetham was told her own grandparents had been involved in the
walkoff.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: I just, probably even now, just trying to actually put that into the context.
That's why I say I don't think I found the story; I'm pretty sure it found me.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Premiering in Yorta Yorta country in Mooroopna in Victoria's north-east was a way
to recognise the past.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: I want to do honour to that story, to my ancestors and it's really quite an
amazing dream coming true right now for me.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: In a scene that would resonate with any member of the Stolen Generation, Jessica
Hitchcock's character's removed from her mother.

JESSICA HITCHCOCK: I know it's really hard for her whilst on stage to perform the situation where I
am actually taken away from her, knowing that it probably brings up a lot of memories for her.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: For Tiriki Onus, performing in Pecan Summer was a chance to honour his grandfather,
a key leader in the walkoff, and later, a revered elder.

BILL ONUS, TIRIKI ONUS' GRANDFATHER (ABC Archives): Yes, my people, the Australian Aborigines, knew
about Charinga, which means "from the very beginning of time".

TIRIKI ONUS: Now for me to be able to connect with him again on such a personal level and play a
character that is very much based on him, I think is really, really an important personal journey
for me in discovering my own identity in many ways also.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: The sold out performance was met with a standing ovation. For the show's writer,
composer and director, it was a moment to savour.

JIMMY LITTLE: She's receiving accolades and praise and recognition and all these things are
rebuilding a young girl who was half-alive, half-informed to becoming a whole woman.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: These people lived that story, you know, and I think that's what makes it so
powerful. This day, a very, very powerful performance.

JIMMY LITTLE: I'm proud of what you've done, darl. I really am.

DEBORAH CHEETHAM: Thankyou.

TRACY BOWDEN: Deborah Cheetham hopes to tour her opera nationally next year. Kirstin Murray
reporting there.