Music from the heart
Pecan Summer with Deborah Cheetham. Picture: Jorge de Araujo.

"The scene where Alice is in the church and my character tries to take her home but she's dragged away by the police — that's pretty much what happened to my mother," says soprano Deborah Cheetham, her voice wavering.

"When Monica finally found me, when I was about 18 months old, she went to my adopted parents' home — and my adopted mother called the police."

Born in Nowra, in southern NSW, Cheetham explains she was removed from her mother when she was just three weeks old and sent to a white Baptist family in Sydney.

Believing her abandoned, her adopted family was shocked when Monica turned up to collect her and sent her away. Pausing, Cheetham sighs.

"They were good people, but strict. All my adopted parents wanted to do was to educate me out of being Aboriginal. They thought they'd saved me from something terrible. "I'm not about to blame them for that... but eventually, you find your way back to who you are. I didn't go looking for my Aboriginal family. I discovered them quite by chance."

Cheetham's story does not begin in Nowra but long before she was born — at the Cummeragunja Mission in Shepparton, southern NSW.

On February 3, 1939, sick of poor conditions and treatment, about 200 Yorta Yorta people living there left in the dead of night, crossing the mighty Murray River to resettle elsewhere in the first mass strike of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Growing up, Cheetham knew nothing of this epic event which would later come to shape her life. With a natural talent for singing, she discovered opera thanks to a "wonderful teacher" who took the starstruck teenager to performances several times a week.

Cheetham attended the NSW Conservatorium of Music and gained a Bachelor of Music Education, becoming a teacher for more than a decade and indulging her love of performing at night.

Back then, her Aboriginal family was still a mystery. All she knew was that musician Jimmy Little was her uncle: a fact once whispered and rarely mentioned again.

One night in Sydney, at 22, Cheetham gazed into the audience and was shaken. In the front row was a woman who could have been her identical twin.

"Armed with my one little piece of information — that my uncle was Jimmy Little — we met each other after the play," Cheetham recalls.

"She said: "I'm your cousin — would you like to meet your mother?' It went from there."

In 1997, Cheetham wrote an acclaimed play, White Baptist Abba Fan, about coming to terms with her Aboriginality and sexuality as she tried to reconnect with her mother.

She toured the world with the show and as a singer. Having toyed with the idea of writing an opera for decades, she felt compelled to start in 2006 but didn't know where to begin.

As she cast around for ideas, an elder sat her down and told her the story of the Cummeragunja walk-off.

"Instantly I realised it was a story that deserved to be told," she said. As she started researching, Cheetham got another "incredibly emotional" shock. She found that her Aboriginal grandparents had taken part in the walk with Little and that his sister, born later, was her mother.

"It was like time stood still. I suddenly had this connection with my grandparents, people I had never had the privilege of knowing," she says.

Pecan Summer, the tale of the walk-off told through the eyes of nine-year-old Alice, was born.

Deborah Cheetham. Picture: Astrid Volzke/The West Australian.
In 2007, Cheetham was awarded a two-year Australia Council fellowship to develop her opera for the stage. She already had a title, inspired by the nut-brown colour of her skin.

"People say to me 'Oh, you don't look that Aboriginal' — in fact, someone said it to me this morning — or 'You're not that dark'," she says.

In 2008, Cheetham wrote the first draft of the libretto and began the process of training an indigenous cast. Scraping together some money, she hit the road and was staggered by the raw talent she found in WA.

In 2009, she invited Pat Oakley, Michael Smith, Jub Clerc, Robert Taylor and Brendan Armstrong — some of them first-time singers — to Melbourne for intensive workshops with industry professionals at the Wilin Centre at the Victorian Arts Centre.

"The first step was to find the talent, the second was to develop that talent," she says. Having found her cast, Cheetham put the leads through supported tertiary study and developed a children's choir for the chorus.

Over the next few years, she got on with the laborious and expensive business of making an opera, including writing the score.

Tragically, Cheetham's mother died several weeks before Pecan Summer premiered in October, 2010, in the town of Mooroopna, near Shepparton, the same country where the Yorta Yorta once walked.

But Little was there and afterwards the pair held each other and cried. "He was lost for words, really emotional," she says.

"I named one of the characters after him and it was basically about his life."

After a second run in Melbourne last year, Pecan Summer will make its WA debut at the Heath Ledger Theatre next month with plenty of local talent in the mix.

Cheetham's ensemble includes artists from WA Opera, the WA Academy of Performing Arts and Perth Symphony Orchestra with WA dancer Sermsah Bin Saad dancing the prelude, a graceful Dreamtime Creation story.

Cheetham believes although the opera has its roots in NSW, the story will resonate with audiences around the nation. "This is a story about family, identity, the Stolen Generation and reconciliation — they're all matters that concern every Australian, our shared story," she says.

Pecan Summerwill be at the Heath Ledger Theatre from September 6-8.

The West Australian

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