'Stolen Generation' singer debuts landmark Aboriginal opera

Australian soprano Deborah Cheetham chokes with emotion as the crowd rises for a thunderous ovation at a preview of "Pecan Summer", the first opera for an all-Aboriginal cast.

It is the culmination of a long and painful personal journey for this diminutive woman from the Yorta-Yorta clan, who was stolen from her mother at three months and raised by white parents who concealed her origins.

Cheetham was in her twenties before she discovered the truth. The ensuing process of self-discovery became intertwined with her passion for opera.

"After dragging myself out of an identity meltdown my response was to create something positive," she says.

Cheetham's composition tells the story of Australia's "Stolen Generations", thousands of Aboriginal children taken from their parents under acts of parliament, in a policy at its height between 1869 and 1969.

Government and church officials removed them to be raised in institutions or adopted by white parents in a bid to assimilate them forcibly into mainstream culture.

Cheetham is following in the footsteps of American composer George Gershwin, whose trailblazing 1935 opera "Porgy and Bess" had an all-black cast and described the suffering of Afro-Americans.

The story of "Pecan Summer" is dramatic and personal. In 1939, Yorta-Yorta people at the Cummeragunja mission in New South Wales staged an unprecedented revolt by fleeing across the nearby state border into Victoria.

"(They) made a decision to take a stand against the harsh and oppressive conditions they were living under," says Cheetham.

"At dawn on February 4, 200 men, women and children crossed the Dhungala (Murray river) into Victoria and into history.

"My grandparents James and Frances Little and their 18-month-old son Jimmy were amongst those who made the exodus."

The story is also told through the character of 11-year-old Alice, played by Jessica Hitchcock, who was taken from her mother into the custody of a white preacher and his wife.

With the agreement of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, Cheetham will use a recording of his landmark February 2008 apology to the "Stolen Generations" as part of the work.

Cheetham has taken pains to involve her own people at every level and the opera will have its October world premiere in the town of Shepparton, Victoria, on Yorta-Yorta land.

She has trained a children's choir from the local school, who trod the boards for the first time at the preview to deliver a moving performance.

She hopes this location will allow surviving participants of the mission protest to see the opera, part of which is sung in Yorta-Yorta.

"If the people who lived through those events who are now in their eighties come to the performance and feel empowered by it, if they engage with it and are proud of it, then that's the measure of success," she says.

The singer has continued grappling with the demons of her past until recently. From late adolescence she carried the double burden of being a lesbian as well as an Aboriginal person who had never met her birth family.

She carries no rancour for the pious working-class Baptist family in Sydney who adopted her. She said that they were told by the Salvation Army officer who handed her to them that she had been abandoned in a field in a cardboard box.

In truth he had kidnapped her from her birth mother Monica's house while she was away in Sydney looking for work.

Years later the Aboriginal diva discovered that Monica had tracked down the family and tried to reclaim her when she was 18 months old, but was taken away by police, a scene recreated in "Pecan Summer".

Despite all of this she described her adoptive parents as loving people and has taken care in the opera to protect their image.

"I've made them well-rounded, three-dimensional figures. I have no bitterness - it's clear that good people can make bad decisions," she says.

Ironically, Cheetham suffered almost as much from her lesbianism as from racial prejudice. She was involved in Baptist Church activities and led its choir, but was forced to leave after declaring her sexuality.

"My world was imploding," she says, "until I discovered I was a member of the Stolen Generation. I guess I had a whole unravelling of my personality."

In this period she finally found her birth family but then suffered the new pain of being rejected as "a self-opinionated lesbian snob", a story she told in her 1997 one-woman show, "White Baptist Abba Fan" which toured Australia before success on the international circuit.

But by the time she was 30 her family had accepted her and she proudly assumed her Aboriginal identity.

Cheetham has recently been touring "Til the Black Lady Sings", a critically acclaimed show that continues the autobiographical thread and features arias from Puccini, Gounod, Dvorak and Richard Strauss.

But "Pecan Summer" - whose title refers to the colour of her skin, which she compares to a pecan nut - is undoubtedly the production that means most to her.

The opera was commissioned for the 2012 Olympic Arts Festival, which will precede the next Olympics in London.

Cheetham has been invited to take it to an indigenous opera festival in America next year and is looking for financing for performances in Melbourne and Sydney.

"It took me a long time to piece myself together," she says. "But if 'Pecan Summer' is a success, it's because it's driven by someone who knows herself."

Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker