Sofija Stefanovic on Deborah Cheetham...
Deborah Cheetham’s schedule is so packed it took months to arrange an interview. She’s been 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 Deborah’s work. Pecan Summer isn’t Deborah’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 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 former prime minister Tony Abbott for his stance on gay marriage. As far as Deborah is concerned, small-mindedness is something we need to leave behind us.
In 2015, Deborah was asked to sing the national anthem at the AFL 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 Deborah 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. Deborah laughs readily, and her self-awareness and dark sense of humour punctuate the conversation. As is evident in her work, Deborah 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.