Canon in She

Deborah Cheetham OAM

7 September 2020

Content warnings: Racism, Stolen Generations

Welcome to Canon in She, a column that celebrates women who compose music. This time, I am dedicating the entire column to Deborah Cheetham. Out of respect, and in recognition of the power imbalance between myself as a white settler and Deborah Cheetham as a First Nations person, I will refer to Ms Cheetham by surname.

Deborah Cheetham OAM (1964-present)

Deborah Cheetham is a Yorta Yorta soprano, composer, playwright, and educator. She wrote the first Aboriginal opera, Pecan Summer, which premiered in 2010. Its related Dhungala Children’s Choir created in 2009 led to the creation of the Short Black Opera company. Ms Cheetham’s vocal music is known for incorporating Indigenous  languages into the libretto (lyrics). She studied music education at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and has toured professionally as an opera singer since the early 1990s. She sang in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, which was the first Olympics I’m old enough to remember, though only vaguely.

Ms Cheetham is a member of the Stolen Generations and was taken from her mother as a baby to be raised by a white family. She wrote an autobiographical play in 1997 titled White Baptist Abba Fan which narrates her experiences coming to terms with her Aboriginal identity, lesbian identity and attempts to reunite with her lost family. Since then, she has toured overseas, written a heckload of music, started an opera company and contributed to an anthology titled Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss.

Ms Cheetham was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2014, part of the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2015, and awarded the 2019 Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award, named after an Ormond Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne. She was appointed in 2019 to the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University as Professor of Practice and is the 2020 Composer in Residence for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Ms Cheetham’s works are mostly centred around the voice. However, her recent work has been a collaboration with the Australian Tapestry Workshop and international composers on the Woven Song, Embassy Tapestry Project to make tapestry responses to their music. She is also working with designer Linda Britten to create gowns inspired by each piece and related tapestry, which were intended to be exhibited in Melbourne late 2020. A gala concert featuring these works is slated for early 2021 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. I was really struck by her dedication to collaboration and inclusion, exemplified by the tapestry project.

Ms Cheetham is quoted on the Short Black Opera website as a “21st century urban woman who is Yorta Yorta by birth, stolen generation by policy, soprano by diligence, composer by necessity and lesbian by practice.”

And I think she’s pretty damn cool.

Here is the website for Short Black Opera. Check out the tapestry project. It’s super rad!

A Listening List

  • Pecan Summer (SBS On Demand, free signup): Ms Cheetham’s first opera is sung in English and Yorta Yorta. She wrote both the music and the libretto. The opera is based on the 1939 Cummeragunja walk-off, which was a protest from the residents of an Aboriginal reserve, mostly Yorta Yorta people, about their living conditions and restrictions on their movement by the Maloga Mission. You can also listen on the ABC website without logging in, but won’t have access to the visual element.
  • Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace: a work for solo vocalists, choir and orchestra sung in the language of the Gunditjmara people. It is Australia’s first requiem commemoration of the traditional owners’ resistance wars in response to invasion and is intended to be sung by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal performers. Its story is based on a series of battles known as the Eumeralla Wars, which took place between 1840-1863 on the lands of the Gunditjmara people, known to settlers as southwestern Victoria. Here is an alternative option if the first is unavailable.
  • Long Time Living Here: Ms Cheetham worked with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to develop a series of musical Acknowledgements of Country. This version premiered in February 2020 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and is sung in the language of the Boon Wurrung people. For more information about the various Acknowledgements, check out the MSO website.

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