'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."
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