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Deborah Cheetham Follows her Songline
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3 February 2022

Deborah Cheetham Follows her Songline

Interview by Sofija Stefanovic

Deborah Cheetham’s schedule is so packed, it took months to arrange an interview. And I understand – she’s got better things to do than talk to nosy journalists about her life and work. Better things, such as preparing a Sydney Opera house production of Pecan Summer: a ground-breaking contemporary opera about the Yorta Yorta people who walked off Cummeragunja mission in 1939. It will showcase Indigenous operatic talent, and will be performed in English and Yorta Yorta languages. And, importantly, it will give Australians a chance to learn about Indigenous history – a driving force in Cheetham’s work. Pecan Summer isn’t Cheetham’s first critically-acclaimed piece, combining classical music and Indigenous history. She also wrote and starred in White Baptist ABBA Fan, an autobiographical play that explores her life as a member of the Stolen Generations, combining her contemporary story with arias by Handel, Puccini and more.
Deborah Cheetham was once the only Aboriginal opera singer, but she took it upon herself to change that. Enter, her production company: Short Black Opera (a playful reference to her diminutive stance), which she founded in 2008, with the specific goal of giving Indigenous singers and musicians more opportunities in the classical music scene (in which they are severely underrepresented). As well as advocating for Indigenous rights, she’s publicly criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbot for his stance on gay marriage. As far as Deborah Cheetham is concerned, small-mindedness is something we need to leave behind us.

In 2015, Cheetham was asked to sing the National Anthem at the Football Grand Final. Of the incident, she wrote: ‘Let me be clear: it was an honour to be asked. The problem is, as an Indigenous leader I simply can no longer sing the words “we are young and free”. For that matter, as an Australian with a strong desire to deepen our nation’s understanding of identity and our place in the world, I believe we can and must do better.’ Her suggestion to sing alternate lyrics (“in peace and harmony”) was rejected, and an impasse was reached. She didn’t take the gig, preferring to lose an audience for millions, than sing something she doesn’t believe.

I catch Cheetham on a Wednesday morning for a video chat. She’s in a hotel room in Sydney, and her Skype camera isn’t working, which makes her happy – apparently, she is a recently-awoken mess. She’s busy, and exhausted, but you wouldn’t know it from her incisive conversation. Cheetham laughs readily, and her self-awareness and dark sense of humour punctuate the conversation. As is evident in her work, Cheetham is generous with her personal history, and, with gusto she lays herself bare, pointing out the connections, tragedies and turning points that have marked her life, using her own growth as an example of how we can change for the better, as individuals, and a nation.

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

You have had a really interesting life.

Sometimes it feels as though I’ve had many lives. And I’m sure that there are lots of people who could say that. Perhaps we could all say that. But there have definitely been real turning points in my life where I’ve made a discovery about who I am and where I come from. Growing up in your own family, in a community that your family identifies themselves with—that didn’t happen for me as a member of Stolen Generations. At a very early age, I had a title. I was “Debbie Joy Cheetham the Adopted Aboriginal” [laughs]. That was a very unique title to have.

Who gave you that title?

Well my adopted parents who—right at the outset I want to say—were really good people, they gave me a way of explaining who I was. I was in the care of people who genuinely wanted children and they couldn’t have children. In the ’60s it was presented to them that, to adopt this Aboriginal child would be a very Christian thing to do. They were devout Christians, so they took me on, as well as two other adopted children. But sadly they were misinformed and they passed that misinformation onto me.

What was the misinformation?

They told me I had been abandoned by my Aboriginal mother. A retired member of the Salvation Army, who was running an orphanage in southern New South Wales—her name was Major Townsend—told my parents that she had found a little Aboriginal child in a cardboard box in a field, abandoned. The Old Testament story of Moses in the bulrushes basically! She plagiarised that. When in fact the truth was that my Aboriginal mother had been married to my non-Aboriginal father, although his family were diametrically opposed to this marriage. Then she got pregnant with me, and that was the last straw. They applied all the pressure they could to break up that marriage. So my Aboriginal mother, Monica, was left single, without any income, without any source of support. And my biological father—and it’s a real stretch to even call him that—he left her completely and utterly destitute.

Wow.

In 1964 Aboriginal women had no rights. Actually, we weren’t even counted as human beings until 1967. He kicked Monica out. She had nowhere to live, she had nowhere to go, so she found herself working at an orphanage. It was a self-funded exercise by this Major Townsend; she couldn’t pay Monica anything it was just basically a roof over her head. And Monica had no means to support a baby, so she did what most Aboriginal people with little education and little opportunity would do in the ’60s: seasonal fruit picking. A few weeks after my birth, around Christmas time, that’s what she was doing. She came back from work one day and I was gone. Major Townsend refused to tell her where I’d been taken. Of course, she’d given me to the family that I grew up with, and had perpetuated this devastating lie. She told Monica that she had to leave, she could no longer live at the orphanage and she could never know where I’d been taken.

Oh my God. And what happened to Monica?

Well, heartbroken, she left. She made her way eventually to Wollongong just south of Sydney, and she met up with one of her siblings. She was really desperate to find out where I was. Eventually she tracked down Major Townsend’s connections in Sydney; it was actually the Baptist church that my parents were members of. And she managed to find the home of my adopted mother and father.

I was only 18 months old, and as she approached the house, she could see a woman standing in the yard and a baby in a little bassinet on the front lawn. The woman was talking to her neighbour over the fence and both of these women turned when they saw Monica. My mother grabbed me, ran inside and called the police. She wouldn’t let Monica in, wouldn’t let her see me, and eventually the police came and they dragged Monica away. I didn’t know any of this. I had no notion of any of this until my late twenties. There are always secrets in families.

Afterwards, you put this story into a play. How you feel about sharing these personal stories?

I was able to share this story through the play White Baptist Abba Fan. I think it’s important to share these stories if we can, because there are many people who don’t have a platform to express what they’ve been through. They are out there trying to make sense of their own lives. Then there’s the rest of the world, who have what we might consider to be normal kind of existence is— actually I don’t know if there is such a thing as a normal existence. The rest of the world who think they’re normal [laughs] well these are the people who need to understand and appreciate what the complications and the ramifications of the Stolen ­Generations are.

When you were growing up did you know any Aboriginal people?

For a long time I would have told you that I was the only Aboriginal student in my school. As far as I knew, I was. Then I started to look back at photos from high school and I realised that there were two other Aboriginal girls in my year. I wonder about that now. I’d love to be in contact with them and say, “Well what was that about?” I know from my parents’ point of view, they thought they could help me to transcend being Aboriginal. They thought I could be “educated out of it”—that they’d saved me from that fate worse than death. But I don’t know what the story was for the other girls in my school.

You talk about turning points in your life. I want you to tell me about the turning point when you decided to become an opera singer.

When I was 14 years old, I was very much into sport. My parents had invested a lot in my tennis training and I think they were hopeful that I’d be the next Evonne Goolagong I suppose, rather than an Yvonne Kenny. I used to travel home from tennis on the train every Saturday. Above the seat in my usual carriage there was this poster advertising an opera. I didn’t even know what an opera was. But there was this poster of a striking woman in a very large hat, advertising something called “The Merry Widow.” I would see this poster every week as I travelled to and from tennis, and I thought, Gee I wish I could see this Merry Widow, it looks really glamorous! Well destiny intervened when one morning my music teacher, Mrs King, announced that our class would have the chance to see this opera called “The Merry Widow,” and produced a little flyer with exactly the image that I’d been looking at and fantasising about. Right away I thought, Whatever else happens in my life, I must go and see this opera. It was like this talisman: I was so entranced by this poster. It had been calling out to me. We’d been advised that there were only 15 tickets. The next morning I stood in the place where my music teacher always parked her car so that I could be the first to give her this permission slip and money. She almost ran me over!

[Laughs].

I was almost run over in an attempt to go to my first opera!

In the name of art! I can remember the date of the performance and the seat that I was in. It was a real turning point for me. Everything in my career has been built from that moment.

In the name of art!

When I was 21, I came out as a lesbian. Even though I’d probably known my whole life that I was only attracted to women, I was brought up in a strict Baptist church, so I had to make sense of that for myself. Ultimately it didn’t fit with the Baptist church and I was cast out and forced to resign my membership. That was a huge loss one I didn’t think I would recover from. Church wasn’t just Sunday—it was everyday bar Monday night, and Monday night I would sneak over to rehearse because I used to be a part-time organist. That church was a community of 300 people who I knew, and who knew me. The trauma of being asked to resign was massive for me. In a very real sense, being forced to resign from the Baptist church propelled me into the gay community in Sydney. It’s like when people gain weight after they stop smoking—well I stopped going to church, so I replaced it with clubbing [laughs]. I found my way into a women’s theatre group. I began to see myself as a lesbian soprano and a part-time composer. I hadn’t yet given much thought to my Aboriginal identity. The education process had been quite successful in teaching me not to think about it, and to mention it even less. But after I joined the lesbian theatre company and it wasn’t long before I realised that the women in that company valued me as an Aboriginal woman. For the very first time, my Aboriginality was seen as an asset and rather than a liability.

How interesting! Becoming a member of the gay community encouraged you to become an active member of the Aboriginal community.

I think it’s because we share the experience of marginalisation. Those women were of the opinion that this was something I deserved to celebrate. They were very, very supportive. In fact, that’s how I met my Aboriginal mother, Monica.

Really?

I was in a play called “Dykes on Parade.” You know, subtle in a way only a community theatre company could be [laughs].

[Laughs].

So “Dykes on Parade” was on tour in Canberra. In my first scene I appeared on stage as the quintessential butch dyke, wielding a double-edged axe, and looking a bit like Xena. I looked out into the audience, and in the front row there was a woman that could have been my identical twin. Now, if you’re Aboriginal growing up in an all-white family in a mostly white community, you never see anybody that looks like you. And even though in this theatre group I was being celebrated for being Aboriginal, there weren’t any other Aboriginal women. So, to come out on stage on opening night and see this woman in the front row who could have been my identical twin! It was quite surreal. Of course we made our way to find each other after the show and she said, “Who’s your family?” The one small piece of information I’d had, that my adopted parents had not withheld from me was that my uncle was Jimmy Little, a famous singer—the one-accepted Aboriginal of his time. I said, “The only thing I know is that I’m related to Jimmy Little.” And she said, “Well I’m your cousin, and would you like to meet your mother?”

Wow.

So there were lots of layers to that. One, I had a cousin who was a lesbian also. And an aunty…

Hang on, hang on. So your cousin who looks exactly like you was at “Dykes on Parade” by chance?

Yep.

Oh! I thought that she must have heard you were in it and came to find you!

No. She was just a lesbian in Canberra coming along to see a lesbian theatre group from Sydney!

What are the chances!

In Canberra, for god’s sake! Here we were, in a sleepy town on a weekend. Little did I know that I’d go on stage and there would be the rest of my life. This is what I mean by “turning points,” that not everybody experiences the revelation of who they are in quite the same way. My cousin introduced me first to my Aunty Betty. Now, my Aunt was well known in the lesbian community in Sydney. She was a lesbian, and she was fierce. If there’s any reputation that Aboriginal women have for being fierce, then you can look it up in the dictionary and there’ll be a picture of Aunty Betty. She was very suspicious of me, because by then it was well understood that children are taken, indoctrinated and educated out of being Aboriginal. So she knew who I would be, and she sort of gave me my pre-interview. She drilled into me, “If you’re going to meet your mother, you need to understand what this means to her.” And I had no capacity to understand what it would mean to her. I really was this sort of aspirational middle class product of my upbringing. I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t know how you could be ready for it anyway.

Had you ever imagined meeting your mother?

No. In my teens I’d killed off my Aboriginal mother and invented the fact that my father was Italian, which is why I loved opera so much. I just invented that identity for myself in my mind. It’s a way of protecting yourself from the awful truth—that your mother put you in a cardboard box and left you out in the sun to die. And you were only saved by the grace of the hand of this retired major of the Salvation Army. If you live with that, it’s very damaging. It’s much easier to say, “My Aboriginal mother died and my Italian father went back to Italy.” I just completely made it up.

Wow.

Aunty Betty facilitated the meeting with my mother for the first time. The night before I was supposed to meet Monica was a really rainy night. I drove to Aunty Betty’s house in the morning, and we were going to drive together out to Monica’s. Aunty Betty came to the door and she was ashen-faced and really quiet. She said “Your mother’s been in a car accident. She’s in hospital, I’ll take you to see her, but she’s pretty badly bashed up.” That’s how I met Monica for the first time. She was in the hospital hooked up to all the machines. It was a really traumatic way to meet your mother for the first time.

Yeah.

I can still recall everything about that visit. I walked into the room and she was there, crying and saying “My baby, my baby, my baby” over and over again. I didn’t feel like anybody’s baby. I wasn’t prepared for that. I’m at the hospital bed of a woman who I still believed abandoned me in a cardboard box in a field. We sat and I held her hand. She had a photo in her handbag that she pulled out. It was of my grandmother and she’d brought that with her because I didn’t look very much like Monica at all. I couldn’t see the resemblance. She was a really, really dark Aboriginal woman, a full Aboriginal woman. And that was a bit confronting, too. But then she pulled out this photograph of her mother from her handbag. I look exactly like my grandmother.

Once she was out of hospital, I started to visit her. She lived in very, very modest dwellings, she was on medical benefits and she lived in a housing commission house. She didn’t have the trappings of the aspirational, middle-class family that I came from.

And how was your relationship?

 I never asked, “Why did you abandon me?” I was still living with this misinformation, this lie that I’d been fed. So, my visits became less frequent. That’s when Monica wrote this really heartrending letter. It wasn’t something she could just tell me. So she wrote it down in a letter, everything that had happened to her: how I’d been taken away, and when she came home from work I wasn’t there; how she pleaded for information about where I’d gone, and when she finally found me, my mother had called the police and she’d been dragged away. And a little bit of information about my other siblings and my biological father. She’d written this letter, and she had given it to my fierce Aunty Betty to give to me. Eventually, my visits to Monica stopped altogether; I hadn’t yet received that letter. Betty was fierce and also judgmental and she had decided that I wasn’t ready for this letter and I didn’t deserve it, so she didn’t give it to me.

A couple of years went by and I had very little contact with Monica. One day I got a phone call from Aunty Betty and she said, “Your brother has died. Monica needs you to come to the funeral.” So I went to my first Aboriginal funeral. It was by a graveside, in a grave that already had other siblings in it. I didn’t know that before I went to the funeral. My family were people who couldn’t afford more than one plot. I’d had another sibling who had died a couple of years before I’d even met Monica. So that grave was opened up to receive another of my brothers. And there, gathered around the graveside, were all my relations and many other people besides, 50 or more people. And Jimmy Little. This was my family, they were all there. It was such a confronting experience to be at the graveside of a brother that I’d only met once on one of those fleeting visits to Monica in her housing commission house. As I was leaving the funeral, Aunty Betty put an envelope into my hand.

Oof.

It was the letter from Monica that she’d held onto for two years. On the way home I pulled over to the side of the road to read the letter. It’s like it was burning a hole in my hand. It was Monica’s account of how I’d been taken and everything else besides. She ended the letter by saying, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there when you needed me. Please forgive me.”

Oh.

We became much closer after I had the letter. But I never told her that Betty held onto it because she would have been very angry with her sister. That was a huge turning point because we’d had this initial opportunity to connect, but nowhere to actually put the emotion.

Wow.

There are so many other Stolen Generation children who never made it home, who never met anyone. The majority went into institutions and were abused and forced into unpaid domestic servitude, which of course is slavery.

I’ve just remembered something you said that stuck with me. When you refused to sing “Advance Australia Fair” at the football Grand Final, because you didn’t want to sing, “We are young and free.”

If you say that this country is “young,” then you are completely denying that there was anything in place before the process of colonisation began. Of course that’s just completely unrealistic and untrue.

I remember you talked about how most Australians are content to know that indigenous culture exists without troubling themselves to find “meaningful engagement.” Learning about those Stolen Generation stories, is that what you mean by meaningful engagement?

We have a shared history on this continent. If we understood it and could grasp the depth, complexity and brilliance of it, then we would be so much richer for that.

And why do we resist? For example, those “Advance Australia Fair” lyrics, why is there so much resistance to changing those words?

Guilt and fear. We’ve been taught to fear. We were fed a lie: terra nullius, and the anthem perpetuates terra nullius. There’s such a culture of fear and hatred and ignorance, which has been perpetuated by all governments. The land was stolen—there’s no other way of putting it. The children were stolen. The languages and the knowledge were stolen, and the history was stolen. When you take from someone else, you’re also taking from yourself. I know that sounds like a meme that you read on Facebook, but honestly, the history you’re denying is your own history as well. So we resist because we have been taught to fear.

And what can we do to change this? Do we need to teach kids in school? Do we need to set an example? What are the actual steps that need to be taken for a better understanding?

All of those things are necessary. We need some national courage and leadership. I think there’s never been a better time to engage with Indigenous knowledge and to understand our shared history. We need to own up to how much Aboriginal people contributed to the beginnings of the nation that we now call Australia. We need to inform ourselves at the very youngest age. We need teachers in schools who understand, universities who will commit to not only complying with the bare minimum of what they need to do around indigenous engagement, but actually actively putting it at the top of their list, and informing themselves the way they’d inform themselves about anything else. The way we found out anything we didn’t know 100 years ago. All the knowledge is there. There has been enough research over the last century. There are fantastic people like Bill Gammage who are writing books about Australian agriculture and society pre-colonisation (The Biggest Estate on Earth). Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu is a fabulous resource. Every child should read that, every teacher should read that and every university lecturer should have that on their shelf and be referring to it. This was the most sophisticated, sustainable and nuanced society pre-1788. And we have been taught to think it was worthless, and who would want to be Aboriginal? We have to remove the hatred and stop talking about Aboriginal people in the language of deficit.

The idea of people telling their stories and those stories being cherished, I think that’s really important.

Our stories, our history, our culture, all of these things—and it’s important for that to be indigenous-led. Right now in Australia there is this culture of compliance. There are so many organisations—and universities are culprits as well—who see compliance as the destination rather than a departure point. Once you’ve complied, that’s all you need to do, you’ve ticked that box, someone’s given you a whole heap of extra funding because you ticked the box. Of course we have reached milestones of understanding like Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008 to the Stolen Generation. My partner Toni and I witnessed in Federation Square in Melbourne. It was a very important day for me. Here was the acknowledgement that governments had failed Aboriginal people, and the Stolen Generation was a real thing, and the apology was made. That was important. That complied with public sentiment. What have we done since? There are more children being taken out of Aboriginal communities now than at any other time. After witnessing the apology to the Stolen Generations, I was determined that that would be the final scene in my opera “Pecan Summer.” Kevin Rudd’s speech would be woven through that scene, and it is. The opera ends on a note of possibility: that a mother and a daughter may be reunited. It doesn’t have a final conclusion. It doesn’t have a “ta-dah!” It has a question mark. It’s important what we do with that apology now, how we might enrich ourselves as Australians through understanding what happened. We need to look back and ask, “How is this the longest continuing culture in the world? What did they do differently? How might we apply that to our lives? How might we learn from Aboriginal Australia?”

Yes. And so your company, “Short Black Opera,” it’s about sharing the operatic stage with indigenous singers. Because Aboriginal people are very underrepresented in opera and classical music, right?

Yes. I had been singing for 25 years as a soloist making an impression. But I wanted Australians to understand that Aboriginal Australia is beautiful and impressive. And there are many of us, and we all need to be celebrated and have that chance. I might say that I chose the story for Pecan Summer, but most certainly it chose me. The story is the walk off from Cummeragunja mission, which took place in 1939. I was researching those events because I’d heard of this story. I went up to Shepparton and I met some of the elders of the community and one of them one of them was Aunty Frances Mathysen. She said to me, “You know it’s interesting you want to write this story, but what’s your connection?” I said, “I just feel it’s an important story and I want to write an opera that will help Indigenous people consider a career in opera. If you invite them to perform in it, that will give them the incentive to maybe think about training classically.” She said, “That’s a great idea, but I need to know who your family is before I’ll share this story with you.” So I told her that it was difficult for me to know very much, but that my mother was Monica and her brother was Jimmy Little. Aunty Fances just smiled and said, “This opera that you’re writing, your grandparents were part of that story. They walked off Cummeragunja mission in 1939 in protest of how they were treated on that mission station, and they carried Jimmy with them. He was 18 months old. I knew your grandparents—they were very dear friends of mine—and this story you’re writing, it’s your story” [laughs]. So massive turning point right there.

Those turning points you talk about, they’re so interesting. Even though they seem to come out of nowhere, it also seems like you always had a little inkling, a little seed. When you were a small child and you didn’t know anything about your birth family apart from that you’re related to this wonderful musician, Jimmy Little. I feel like, maybe, that tiny little spark of music was there, and it was ignited when you saw the poster for the opera.

It always is there, you know. Jimmy used to say my mother Monica had the most beautiful voice. Then I learnt that my own grandmother was also a very well-known singer in that Aboriginal community at Cummeragunja. It all pieces together, but these are bits of information that I’ve had to find through a lot of heartache and soul searching and sometimes luck.

Right.

We travel around the country with Short Black Opera. I began training a children’s choir, because it’s important to get kids involved really early. One of the songs we wrote very early on was called “Our Song.” The lyric goes: “A song is not just a song. It’s our way home.” and that is the truth of my own experience. It has always been a song, even when it was a song that I couldn’t even hear, the idea of a song, like that poster for an opera, that was guiding me home. Then going to see my first opera and finding a home there sitting in row L, seat number 23.

You still remember it.

This year I’m taking “Pecan Summer” to that very same theatre, the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. My music teacher who took me to see my first opera, she’s still a very dear friend. I’ll make sure she sits in row L seat number 23. It’s coming full circle back to the beginnings of how a song connected me to who I’m meant to be. After all an opera is just a big song. All along the way, those songs have led me to find the truth and to understand. So that’s why I can no longer sing the words “young and free” in our national anthem. I don’t believe it’s the best version of who we need to be as Australians. I think we can do better. I would have preferred to sing, “Australians all let us rejoice, in peace and harmony.” “Oh my god! These Aboriginal people! What do they want next? Now they want to sing about peace and harmony! How dare they!”[laughs]

“How dare you talk about peace and harmony!”

I know a song is not just a song. I think that one of the really powerful symbols of understanding will be when we can have an anthem that is just a little more inclusive and certainly more factual. Because by no means is Australia a young nation. We’re not. I honestly believe that if I can find a way to understand the complexity of this issue, then the rest of Australia can too. I had to understand what my connection to Aboriginal Australia was on a deep, personal level. Sometimes that came at a huge cost. But I have gained so much more from that experience. In my understanding of myself and in my own humanity, and I think Australia could benefit from that as well. I believe that there’s a silent majority out there and we all just need a moment to stand up and say, “Actually, you know what? Everybody who’s racist, everybody who’s homophobic, just shut up.”

Yeah!

“We’re not listening to you anymore. You’re a minority, you’re loud, you’re ugly. But you’re actually a minority. So we’re not going to accept that anymore. Let’s move on together and be stronger and more mature.”

I just want to ask you, one more thing: did you ever hear Monica sing?

Yeah, we sang together a few times. And she had the most soulful voice. In the play “White Baptist Abba Fan” we sing a duet. She’s pre-recorded, and accompanies herself on guitar, and we sing a duet. It was one of the real highlights of anything I’ve ever done. It was a song that brought us together. When we couldn’t have a conversation about anything else, when she wanted to talk about Elvis and Neil Diamond and I wanted to talk about Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, it didn’t matter because she could sing a country and western song like “Paper Roses” and somehow, I’d instinctively know it and we’d just sing in harmony. It would bring us together. That’s what music can do. That is the power of music above and beyond any other activity I can think of.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian BurnsideAkram Khan and Abigail Disney. She lives in New York. She is writing a memoir called Miss ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin, 2018). She also hosts the literary salon Women of Letters in New York City.

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