“It’s the kind of festival that can really wrap its arms around a city,” says Deborah Cheetham of the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival. She hopes that public appetite will rocket the event, last held in 2012, into becoming an annual celebration.
As well as being a patron, Cheetham has the exciting task of opening the festival, alongside her pianist partner Toni Lalich. Her show, Til the Black Lady Sings, uses the music Catalani, Cilea, Dvorák, Puccini, Strauss and Vaughan Williams – as well as her own compositions – over which she tells the story of her life. Which, as we shall discover, has been full of surprises.
Cheetham also has a big hand in the closing production, via her company, Short Black Opera (named partly after her love of coffee, but also, “if you’ve ever seen me without my high heels on…”). The one-man show William and Mary is performed by bass baritone Tiriki Onus and tells the story of his grandparents.
“These last five years he’s been a member of the company and he’s well and truly on his way,” she says of the talented painter and recipient of the Dame Nellie Melba Trust’s Harold Blair Scholarship. Cheetham met him when she travelled around Australia in 2008, auditioning potential singers. Many already sang in other genres, but Cheetham could hear their potential for the ‘bel canto’ technique. “It will be interesting to see how Victorians respond, because it’s an important part of history that his grandparents were involved in.”
William Onus was one of the main protagonists of the Cummeragunja walk-off at a mission in NSW in 1939 – which is also the subject of Pecan Summer, an opera that Cheetham wrote and premiered in 2010.
“When Tiriki and I first met we didn’t know that my grandparents had been involved as well,” she exclaims.
In fact, Cheetham’s uncle, the country and folk singer Jimmy Little, had been born at the mission, but she didn’t meet him properly until she was an adult. A Yorta Yorta woman by blood, Cheetham was raised by white Baptist parents after she was forcibly taken from her natural mother by a Salvation Army officer.
She excelled in her environment and went on to become the Musical Director of her local church choir, before studying at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music (she went on to write the musical White Baptist Abba Fan about her experiences). By the time she was reunited with her birth family – as a latte-drinking gay soprano – she felt, yet again, that sense of displacement. At least learning about her family’s musical heritage explained her instinct to express herself through song.
“If I could leave one legacy behind it would be to make a contribution to help Australians to see Aboriginal culture as the asset that it is, rather than a liability,” she says. “It’s the longest continuing culture – something that is alive and has endured. Through that endurance there’s an accumulation of knowledge and wisdom that spans 70,000 years.”
And yet, it’s all too often reduced to the same few images in tourism material.
“So true,” she agrees. “I think people put Aboriginal engagement in the too-hard basket, but there’s never been a better time for accessing information, for engaging with this culture that you are actually part of. Because you came here. You are part of it.”
Being head of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts on the VCA campus is one way of furthering that education.
“What we’re trying to do is bring Indigenous culture up close and show how current it is,” Cheetham says. “It’s not some frozen-in-time thing that you have to travel to Arnhem Land to see. It’s live, it’s here, it’s never gone away. It’s something that Australia can lay claim to that no other country in the world can.”
Cheetham’s next project, a requiem called Eumeralla, will take over her world for the next three years and tells another part of Australia’s history that is not widely known: the resistance wars of the late 1800s by the Gunditjmara people.
“It’s important that we know about them,” she says. “That we honour the fallen and acknowledge that this land wasn’t just handed over or given up.”
This sentiment comes just as education minister Christopher Pyne and Conservative education commentator Kevin Donnelly launch a review of the national curriculum, to remove “partisan bias” – in other words, to overthrow the “cultural-left bias and PC group mentality” of Labor (and Labor’s supposed crony, the Australian Broadcasting Commission – in whose very canteen Time Out is sitting with Cheetham). As Donnelly complained, “Every subject has to be taught through environmental, Indigenous and Asian perspectives.”
“We haven’t been given the opportunity to connect with Aboriginal history at school,” Cheetham counters. “Even now, Aboriginal Studies is almost an elective, something that’s set apart. There’s so much history that Australians don’t even know about, and that’s sometimes been quite deliberate.”
As an interviewee and public speaker, Cheetham is always measured and mindful, despite retaining her impish sense of humour. But is it tiring to always be a mouthpiece for an entire culture; to always be asked the big questions, no matter what project she is promoting?
“I was just talking to my team at Wilin about this,” she reflects. “It can be really tiring to continually be explaining, it’s true. But ignorance is not an option. I started my working life as a teacher and it’s something I really enjoy doing. I see it as a great opportunity, actually.”