• Deborah Cheetham rehearses with the Dhungala Children's Choir for their first Sydney Performance (Stuart Miller)
Opera singer and playwright Deborah Cheetham AO talks to SBS about one of her main passions these days: teaching Aboriginal children around Australia to celebrate the power of Indigenous music and take up opera.
By
Deborah Cheetham, Presented by
Sophie Verass

3 Feb 2017 - 4:25 PM  UPDATED 7 Feb 2017 - 12:05 PM

I can’t imagine my life without being able to work with kids. I believe working with young people is an investment in the future, one in which Australia can become a much stronger country and develop into a much more mature nation when successful.

My own career began as a high school teacher. During my 20 years working in the sector, I learned the value of the contribution that you can make to a child’s life. I know first-hand the importance of empowering children to feel as if they do have a voice and subsequently, as though they belong.

Historically, Aboriginal people have always known their belonging and we have done that through song. This is a fundamental way in that the performing arts can value Indigenous culture and the Indigenous communities, and harness the fabulous contribution that we are making.

It's how we've given meaning to everything in our world, it's more than a song - it’s a map to our identity. That what we aim to give these children through Short Black Opera for kids.

Inspiring kids through opera

Short Black Opera (SBO) for KIDS is [the Australia’s National Indigenous Opera Company's] regional engagement program. The Short Black Opera team travels to towns across Australia; as far away as Kalgoorlie and The Pilbara in WA, Broken Hill, Gunnedah and Grafton in NSW and throughout Victoria [to deliver an annual choral camp].

We work with children for three hours each day over the period of a week, developing musical techniques and instilling confidence. We write a song for each group of children inspired by their experiences of living in the local community and using the local language.

The week comes to its climax with a final performance by the children for the local community. The new song is added to the Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and is premiered at the concert along with other repertoire developed during the week. Some of the children we work with will be as young as eight years of age.

We write a song for each group of children inspired by their experiences of living in the local community and using the local language.

This can be a really critical time for them, as they're developing a sense of who they are and where they belong in their community. This can be especially difficult for Indigenous kids, particularly in the regional areas where communities are struggling with the dislocation from culture.

The SBO for KIDS program is specifically designed to help reconnect these children to their culture and their community through the power of song, giving them, quite literally, a voice. It brings children together from across the community and equips them with skills to be able to perform, to be able to write their own songs and send out their own message to their community and other Indigenous kids around Australia.

After we get to know the participants of each program, children who demonstrate that they're ready to go to the next level are invited to be a part of Dhungala Choral Connection (DCC), a Melbourne-based intensive choir program where they meet children from across Australia and perform repertoire from the Choral Connection Songbook. In addition these children will have the opportunity to perform with industry professionals. 

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[Last year], DCC performed and recorded tracks with music legend, Archie Roach for his new album, Let Love Rule. This was such a privilege and thrill for all involved. Our most advanced children become eligible to audition for the Short Black Opera children’s chorus. The members of the SBO Children’s Chorus also performed in Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House in my opera Pecan Summer.

As a result of their outstanding performance they have been nominated for the 2017 Broadway World Award for best Ensemble in an Opera or Musical.

Aboriginal storytelling through opera 

Indigenous Australians are no strangers to opera. In fact, we’ve been performing a kind of opera for more than 2,000 generations. Our ceremonies, for example, which are sung and danced pass on knowledge and histories as well as stories and in this way is very similar to opera.

While opera - a style of music dating back to 17th century Europe - seems far removed from contemporary Aboriginal youth, I have found that most kids are not phased by this fact and simply love the drama this opera can bring to the art of storytelling.

As there is very little effort to be made to convince children of this fascinating connection, the next step that we take is to make sure they can see themselves represented in the story - where they can be the heroes of the story.

There are many Aboriginal heroes in Australia, but they are not nearly well known or celebrated enough. For me opera is a powerful means by which I can celebrate my identity as member of the Yorta Yorta nation and strengthen knowledge of Aboriginal heroes from our past, present and future.

Giving a voice to young people

In this work, there are so many moments when you see a child’s life change forever.

A few years ago I was working with Dhungala Children’s Choir up on Yorta Yorta country in Shepparton, Victoria. I had spent the week in town facing some really challenging national conversations about Aboriginal identity. As an Aboriginal Australian, you often feel as though you're constantly trying to make people see the value of Indigenous culture over, and over ... and over again. Sometimes it leaves you really tired.

I had travelled up to Shepparton from Melbourne to rehearse with the choir. They are really great kids and they could see I was struggling with something. We started to talk about what it was like for them to be Aboriginal kids growing up in their hometown of Shepparton. Many of the kids felt that Indigenous culture does not receive the recognition that it deserves - one of the children said, 'let’s write a song' and so we ‘Do you Know Me?’ was written. I has become a kind of anthem for members of DCC.

While opera - a style of music dating back to 17th century Europe - seems far removed from contemporary Aboriginal youth, I have found that most kids are not phased by this fact and simply love the drama this opera can bring to the art of storytelling.

I’ll never forget the moment when one choir member, 12-year-old Dana McDonald came up with the lyric, 'When you hear the word Aboriginal, tell me what do you see? Do you see you, or do you see me?’. To this day, I am still blown away that a child as young as 12 was able to reach this depth of understanding of how important it is to encourage Aboriginal children to be the very best version of themselves.

This was a young Indigenous person who plumbed the depths of an argument beyond her years. I always make a point of acknowledging Dana when the song is performed because recognition and ownership are so important to the development of identity.

Building a strong community for years to come

In the three years since Do You Know Me? we have composed a further 12 songs, written for and inspired by Aboriginal kids all across Australia. Many of the songs have been written in collaboration with SBO company member Jessica Hitchcock, herself a graduate of the SBO Artist Development program.

Each song makes use of the language of the local Indigenous community. Some songs have more language than others but language remains central to the real power of each song.

Parents often tell us just how much it means to them to hear their children sing in traditional language and it is clear to see how proud the children are themselves. Also of importance is the way in which SBO programs provide a support network for the parents of the children, strengthening their own sense of connection to community and giving them confidence in their own identity.

We see groups reconnecting through the SBO for KIDS program, demonstrating that this can be wonderfully holistic venture for participants, parents and community members alike. 

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