Because Of Her We Can: Deborah Cheetham

Interview and words by Juliette Olah, originally published on


To celebrate NAIDOC Week 2018 ‘Because of her we can’ – held across Australia 8-15 July – we were fortunate to talk with four remarkable Indigenous women making huge changes in our communities. All imagery supplied is by Wayne Quilliam whose photographs showcase real indigenous women living in contemporary society.

Opera singer Deborah Cheetham AO is the founder and artistic director of Short Black Opera, a national Indigenous not-for-profit company based in Melbourne specialising in training and performance opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing artists. In 2014 Deborah was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the performing arts and to the development of Indigenous artists, and to innovation in performance.

We caught up with Deborah to discover why opera is the perfect medium to showcase Aboriginal stories and talent, and the inspiring Australian females she looks up to.

Westfield: Your musical storytelling has been described by critics as going “to the heart of our sense of self.” Can you describe your personal relationship with music, and how important it has been in developing your own sense of identity?

Deborah Cheetham: Music is at the heart of everything I do, the way that I learn, the way I understand the world around me, the way I communicate. I can’t think of a world without music in it. Music is the perfect medium to engage with people and help them understand and to participate in something they didn’t realise might be missing from their lives.
There is great truth in music – when you connect with a melody or a rhythm. Music has a way of transcending flawed analysis and entering straight into your heart and to your soul.

W: From a broader perspective, what role does music play in Aboriginal arts?

DC: Music, dance, visual arts storytelling have always been our way of knowing the world and give meaning to everything in it. Our knowledge has been carried in song but the singer is often the dancer, the dancer is the painter, and the painter is the storyteller.

W: Where does your passion for opera come from?

DC: What I love about Aboriginal culture is this interconnection of the arts. I think that’s why opera makes sense to me, it is the combination of visual and performing arts in a way that Aboriginal people have performed for more than two thousand generations. My love affair with traditional opera began on the 19th of February 1979. I sat in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Row L, seat number 23 and the incomparable, the irreplaceable Dame Joan Sutherland waltzed into my life as the Merry Widow and I was never the same again. From that moment on I knew that more than anything else in the world – I wanted to be an opera singer. I just had to figure out how to do it.

I have always used the standard that Sutherland set as the benchmark for my own career. That’s by no means to say that I compare myself to Dame Joan, but I know that there is a standard to which I can hold myself. Nowadays my passion comes mostly from helping others find the power of their own voice in the world of opera through the programs we run at Short Black Opera.

W: In 2010 you wrote Pecan Summer, the first Indigenous opera. Pecan Summer is based on the walk-off at Cummeragunja Mission Station, which is recognised as a significant step on the long journey towards equal rights for Aboriginal Australians. What was it like to tell such a strong, Aboriginal story through Opera?

DC: Opera is such a powerful medium, making it ideal for telling epic stories. The Cummeragunja walk-off was an important act of defiance. In 1939, there was so much uncertainty in the world and so much hardship, and 200 Aboriginal men, women and children walked off the mission station in order to stand up and say ‘enough’. They were successful in their complaint as the corrupt mission manager, was moved on. Many years later when I was researching this story I discovered that my Aboriginal grandparents were amongst those who showed such courage on that day in 1939.

I wanted to bring together a company that could sing this story. It was important to me that Short Black Opera company would be set up to help people develop a career in the world of opera and to provide them with professional performance opportunities. Opera is a challenging and elite career, but it’s something that I knew Aboriginal people would be drawn to because we have been singing our stories for more than seventy thousand years. We know how to sing the big stories. I am so fortunate to share this journey with my beautiful and talented partner Toni who is our company manager and together we have been able to create a place for Aboriginal singers in the world of opera.

W: After the success of Pecan Summer you founded the Short Black Opera Company. What was your vision for creating the company?

DC: I had been performing for more than twenty years as a classically trained soprano, it was my career, my life. I wanted to encourage other Aboriginal Australians to have the same opportunity to pursue a career in opera and knew that I would need to provide them with the same educational opportunities as I enjoyed growing up. If I was going to level up the playing field in terms of opportunity in the world of opera I would need to establish a company that would help Aboriginal singers develop their craft and I would have to write an opera, like Pecan Summer, to provide Aboriginal singers with a story they could relate to. Short Black Opera is now a company with a children’s chorus – Dhungala Children’s Choir and over 35 adult company members, several of whom have completed university degrees in classical singing. This is an achievement we are very proud of at Short Black Opera.

W: Growing up did you imagine that you would be a pioneer in contemporary Indigenous arts and music?

DC: My grandmother Frances was a pioneer. Along with 200 other Yorta Yorta men, women and children she walked off Cummeragunja mission station. It is her story I tell in the opera Pecan Summer. If I have been a pioneer during my lifetime I definitely inherited that spirit from my grandmother.
I was drawn to music and drama from a very early age. In primary school years, I would write a play or a little song and I would enlist the help of my friends to perform this mini-opera for the rest of our class. Very early on I knew this was what I needed to do to find belonging in the world – this is who I am.

After years of training and performing and trying to create opportunities to sing with the major companies – I finally realised I would have to create those opportunities for myself. Through Short Black Opera I have been able to share those opportunities and I feel grateful that I had a wonderful education and that it afforded me the opportunity to help others to find their voice through the medium of opera.

W: The 2018 NAIDOC theme ‘Because of her, we can! celebrates Indigenous women. Who were the female role models that you aspired to growing up? Who continues to inspire you today?

DC: My grandmother Frances and my mother Monica were both known for their beautiful voices. They were courageous and loving women who knew their connection to country and culture through song. Because of Monica and because of Frances I have a voice and a connection to my culture.

When I was growing up there were so many wonderful women who encouraged me to find my voice and inspired me to use it. My adopted mother Marjory Cheetham who supported my musical education and gave me every opportunity in life that she possibly could. My high school music teacher Jennifer King who took me to see my first opera starring the incomparable and irreplaceable Dame Joan Sutherland.

W: Tell us about the projects you are currently working on.

DC: I am in the middle of two big projects. Woven Song and Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace. The Woven Song project is my response to nine tapestries which were created here in Australia at the Australian Tapestry Workshop which reside in Australian embassies around the world.

When I first learned about the tapestries I wanted to explore through music what role these three-dimensional representations of original artworks by Aboriginal artists were playing in cultural diplomacy. Each of the nine compositions will have an international premiere in the country where the tapestries reside and in 2020 all nine tapestries will return to Australia for an exhibition and gala concert featuring the nine compositions.

Right at this moment while I am speaking to you I am looking out as Bass Strait … as the waves roll in on Gunditjmara country, in South-Western Victoria. I am here to compose the final movements of my new work Eumeralla, A War Requiem for Peace. From the moment colonisation began here in Victoria, the Gunditjmara people defended their land. By the mid-1800s their resistance became known as Eumeralla War.

Aboriginal Australians know only too well the stories of these
resistance wars however many Australians in the broader community still know very little, if anything, about this brutal period in our shared history. If you are 6th or 7th generation Australian there is a very strong possibility that your ancestors fought … and possibly died in a resistance war. The commemoration of those who fell in war is something very familiar to us as Australians. ANZAC and Remembrance Days are observed each year, as they should be. But the resistance wars are another matter. No peace was ever declared in these wars and so that internal conflict remains for us as Australians. I felt that if I could compose a work that would help Australian’s to understand in greater detail our shared history it might perhaps provide a platform for a resolution to that conflict. A resolution we have been awaiting for more than 200 years. Eumeralla, A War Requiem for Peacepremiers on the 14th October 2018 on Gunditjmara country, here in Port Fairy.

W: Finally, NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. What is your biggest hope for the future for Indigenous Australians?

DC: Only Australia can lay claim to the longest continuing culture in the world and that is such a great cause for celebration. It is not cause for fear, it is not cause for divisiveness, it is a powerful fact that can unite us as Australians. It is my hope that our beautiful country continues to develop a greater understanding of Aboriginal knowledge, culture and our shared history, and that this will lead us to become a more mature and compassionate nation.