Australia’s indigenous soprano Deborah Cheetham makes India debut
It’s not often that Mumbai gets to witness an Australian aboriginal woman narrating tales of her painful past in the European operatic tradition, singing indigenous languages, accompanied by Western and Indian classical musicians.
So when Deborah Cheetham takes the stage at Songs of Belonging, at the Royal Opera House, on March 28, expect to feel a whirlwind of emotions.
Cheetham, 54, sings about her life as one of Australia’s many ‘stolen children’, aboriginal infants who were forcibly separated from their parents by the Australian government, to be assimilated into the dominant White population.
The hour-long performance weaves classics from 19th and early 20th century opera with original compositions in four aboriginal languages. It is a mix of narrative recital and powerful commentary. And Cheetham’s story blends the personal with the political as she uses her operatic voice to tell her story of straddling her past and present and finding herself.
Cheetham has been performing for 25 years, adding layers to her work as she understands her identity in new ways. So no two performances are the same. “As my journey towards belonging has continued, my understanding has grown and so this recital has evolved. My story continues and the narrative grows,” she says.
The Mumbai show is also the global debut of a special composition, Article 27. It is based on the article of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Cheetham sings it in the language of Australia’s Pintubi people to highlight the idea of equal rights for all.
A cultural treasure in her native country, Cheetham has also founded Short Black Opera, a company that focuses on the development of indigenous singers. At the Mumbai show she will be accompanied by her partner and pianist Toni Lalich, as well as Ashis Sengupta on the tabla and Melbourne-based contemporary art music ensemble Rubiks Collective.
“We are an ensemble of six musicians featuring flutes, clarinets, percussion, piano and soprano vocals,” says Lalich. “For India, we have added the tabla, providing us with a strong sense of place.”