Deborah Cheetham's debut in India: An indigenous soprano's tale

Updated: 24 March, 2019 09:02 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

Acclaimed opera singer Deborah Cheetham marks her India debut with a performance, in which she will bring to life the ancient song-line of Australia through a unique narrative recital

Deborah Cheetham (right) at an opera performance in Australia
Deborah Cheetham (right) at an opera performance in Australia

The exodus of the Yorta Yorta (indigenous) people from their homeland in Australia, and their inevitable and unending search for belonging, deserve an opera. Acclaimed soprano Deborah Cheetham is one such member of the country's aboriginal group, who is bringing to life their ancient song-line through a unique narrative recital.

The journey to finding her sense of belonging, she says, has been a long one. And she is now coming to Mumbai to share her story as part of the finale of the Australia Fest, a six-month-long festival of Australian culture, creativity and innovation in India.

The 54-year-old opera singer and composer says she belongs to the 'stolen generations' of Australia. "Aboriginal children, who are now called the stolen generations, were forcibly removed from their parents, families and communities. This policy by the successive Australian governments was designed to commit cultural genocide. But it failed. Because we are still here. It has, however, left an indelible mark on our nation. On February 13, 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology on behalf of the Australian Parliament to the stolen generations," Cheetham shares. It was an important step, she says, adding, "But only the first in a very long journey."

Cheetham has assisted many indigenous singers find their voice through the powerful medium of opera. She says, "Developing a career in opera is a long, slow process. It is an elite pursuit. It is my goal to lift the weight of low expectations from the shoulders of indigenous Australians by creating a national indigenous opera company with arts education and training at its very core." Now in its 10th year, Short Black Opera (started by Cheetham) has become a national company, making an important contribution to the future of opera in Australia by adding the authentic and unique storytelling tradition of a thousand generations.

At Royal Opera House in Mumbai, the Australian Consulate, along with Avid Learning, will present Songs of Belonging, a special operatic performance featuring admired Australian and Indian artistes. "Songs of Belonging weaves together some of my favourite repertoire from 19th- and early 20th-century opera with music inspired by the ancient languages and cultures of Aboriginal Australia," says Cheetham, who has been touring internationally for 25 years.

Songs of Belonging will feature the world premiere of her new composition, Woven Song: Article 27. The title, she says, refers to Article 27 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was translated into Nanyuma Napangati's first language in 2015 by Dr Sarah Holcombe, a researcher at The Australian National University. "When Holcombe translated it into the central-Australian language of Pintupi-Luritja, it became the first time the UDHR had been made available in an aboriginal language. And it is important to celebrate this through opera."

The performance will also feature tabla master Ashish Sengupta. "I have endeavoured to create a unique sound world, bringing together a rich palate of woodwind, and percussion with tabla and voice. The tabla has two main roles in Article 27. In the first instance, the tabla provides tonal and textural interest, then at a certain point in the score, it asserts its identity providing us with a strong sense of place. We are in India and the tabla establishes this with great authority."

Cheetham will be sharing her India debut with her partner in music and life, pianist Toni Lalich, and Tamara Kohler (flute), Kaylie Melville (percussion) and Natasha Fearnside (clarinet), who are members of one of Melbourne's most exciting contemporary classical ensembles, Rubiks Collective. "Together, we hope to connect our audiences with a truly unique experience," she concludes.

Where: Royal Opera House, Mama Parmanand Marg
When: March 28; 7 PM to 8.45 PM
Entry: Rs 300 to Rs 1,200
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First Published: 24 March, 2019 08:58 IST

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