ANDREW, IF you have a D-flat in you, then go for it,” said a visibly amused Deborah Cheetham, before the crowd that had gathered to listen to her, as she performed at the residence of the Australian High Commissioner. The “Andrew” in question is the resident peacock of the gardens who kept cutting into her performance with its screeches, perhaps feeling threatened by Cheetham’s soaring soprano. The fowl interruption occurred while Cheetham, the world’s most famous opera singer of indigenous Australian origin, was performing her Songs of Belonging as a finale to Oz Fest, a year-long cultural extravaganza that was initiated by the Australian High Commission. Trained in Western classical music at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, Cheetham is renowned in her home country, and has performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Melbourne Olympics and the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
It’s Cheetham’s work in blending western classical music with Australia’s many indigenous languages, such as Boon Wurrung and Pintupi, that has drawn special attention. “When you fuse music with one of the oldest living languages of the world, a new kind of music is born. Singing is fundamental to every part of Aboriginal life in Australia and not just for special occasions. It was how knowledge was imparted. The idea of fusing ancient language with a more western structure and tone makes complete sense to me,” says the 54-year-old.
At Oz Fest, Cheetham presented 12 pieces — some were canonical works by composers such as Giacomo Puccini, Richard Strauss and Franz Lehár, while others were original compositions, such as Yarran Ngarnga Yinga and Biami Creation Story, in indigenous Australian languages. The pièce de résistance was Woven Song: Article 27, a series of nine compositions inspired by tapestries hanging in nine Australian High Commissions around the world. “The one in Delhi is inspired by Nanyuma Napangati, a senior artist and cultural custodian of the Pintupi people. Nanyuma painted her story on a canvas, to be sold at an auction to raise money for a kidney dialysis machine for her people. Pintubi country is so far out, it takes a 19-hour drive to reach Alice Springs, the nearest hospital. They were the last people to be colonised. The Australian Tapestry Workshop wove the painting as a tapestry, and it’s hanging here at the dining hall of the residence of the Australian High Commissioner. I saw it two years ago on my first visit to India,” says Cheetham.
Woven Songs: Article 27 is especially important to Cheetham for a reason. “In the ravages of colonisation, the earliest casualty was language. Aboriginals were severely punished by the British if they spoke their own language. But they were resilient, they buried it deep. There are 300 indigenous languages spoken in Australia. I came across a Pintupi translation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 27 spoke to me, as it focuses on the ‘right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community’,” says the soprano.
Cheetham is from the Stolen Generation — children of Australian Aboriginal descent who were taken from their families under the acts of the federal and state parliaments, as well as by church missions. She was taken from her birth mother Monica Little, when she was all of three weeks, and her quest to reclaim her true identity has been central to her work. Her autobiographical play White Baptist Abba Fan, which she wrote in 1997, narrates how she tried to reunite with her birth parents, and came to terms with her sexuality and her ethnicity. “It’s like someone giving you these shiny, patent leather shoes, with diamonds on them, but they are three sizes too small. That’s what it was like to be a Stolen Generation child. You are scarred and limited. That identity was too small for me. I have 2,000 years of genetic heritage — my grandmother and my great-grandmothers were singers, I don’t know what else I could possibly be,” says Cheetham. “I grew up in a white household, with working-class parents. They didn’t listen to classical music. My kindergarten teacher took me to listen to (Australian soprano) Joan Sutherland , and my whole world changed. I fell in love with opera, and now I sing in the language of my people,” she says.
The resilience of Australia’s indigenous peoples is a theme that dominates Cheetham’s conversation, as well as her work. Her latest piece, Eumeralla, a requiem for peace which premieres in October, is Australia’s first commemoration of indigenous resistance to colonisation. It will be performed in the language of the Gunditjmara people. “Unlearning is the hardest thing to do. Australia has to unlearn. Australia has no idea of its beginnings. Years and years of feeding ignorance has bred this fear of the ‘other’. We are a racist country. I am trying to take away the ignorance. I am hoping to see the change in my lifetime. But, for sure, it’s a stolen wealth, not a commonwealth,” she says.