• Harold Blair, one of the first Indigenous opera singers paved the way for many of today's Indigenous opera performers and companies. (The Courier Mail)Source: The Courier Mail
From the cane fields of Queensland to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Indigenous opera singers have been blowing us away with their phenomenal talent since the 1940s. NITV takes a look at just three of our talented performers and their backstories.
By
Karina Marlow

9 Sep 2016 - 1:35 PM  UPDATED 9 Apr 2017 - 12:44 PM

Harold Blair was just twenty-one years old when he made his debut on national radio in 1945. His appearance on Australia’s ‘Amateur Hour’ with his impressive tenor voice scored him a record number of votes and launched the former cane cutter’s career in opera.

Harold, who would have turned 92 on Tuesday, was born on 13 September 1924 to Esther Quinn at Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission. A young single mother, Esther gave her son the surname of the family who had ‘adopted’ her on the mission, expressing her gratitude at giving her a chance to stay with her son.

Just six months after his birth, the family was moved to the Purga Mission near Ipswich and when Harold turned two his mother was sent away to take on work as a domestic servant. Harold continued to live at Purga until he turned 16, receiving enough education from the Salvation Army Mission to gain employment as a farm labourer.

During the war he was dispatched to the Childers region cane fields. It was there that his marvelous singing voice was first noticed by his fellow workers as he sang a tune in local concerts, but it was his short spot on radio that parachuted him to fame.

With the support of friends, unionists and academics, Harold Blair entered the Melba Conservation in Melbourne earning a diploma of music with honours. There he met fellow student Dorothy Eden and the pair wed in 1949, provoking racist backlash for their union.

Before he headed off to the United States to pursue his career, the emerging talent visited Malibar School near the La Perouse Aboriginal Settlement and performed for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, as captured in this archival footage.

In the US Harold studied at the Juilliard School and sang in a church choir in Harlem, paving his way by working as a cleaner. He was the star attraction at the Australian Society of New York benefit concert at the New York Town Hall in 1951.

Upon returning to Australia he performed in a number of productions and joined the ABC’s jubilee tour of Australia. However after suffering from voice strain, Harold took on music teaching and odd jobs and became more politically involved in Indigenous affairs.

Harold helped to establish a holiday program for rural Indigenous kids in Melbourne and served on the Aborigines’ Welfare Board, the Advancement League and the Commonwealth Arts Board.

He said in an interview: “I only wish all my people - the Aboriginal people - were given opportunities like mine. Aboriginal children should have just as much chance of education, including higher education.”

Harold continued to sing occasionally and was awarded an Order of Australia in 1976. Sadly he passed away just four months later; however he left a legacy for future Indigenous opera singers. 

A trip to America was also the turning point in the career of Yorta Yorta soprano Deborah Cheetham. In 1995 she was awarded a three-month scholarship to train in New York with teachers from Juilliard School of Music and the Metropolitan Opera.

When Deborah returned to Australia she began work on her critically acclaimed autobiographical debut ‘White Baptist Abba Fan’ which spent the next five years touring extensively across Australia and Europe.

After being awarded a Fellowship with the Australia Council for the Arts, she began working on her first Indigenous opera ‘Pecan Summer’, the story of a young Yorta Yorta woman whose life is torn apart in 1939.

A member of the Stolen Generations herself, Deborah’s grandparents were among those who walked off the Cummeragunja mission in those days to protest their poor living conditions. 

Deborah is a strong believer in the power of the arts to tell Indigenous stories. "Our stories can be told through music, they can be told through film, dance – you name it, and it’s a powerful way to connect with the broader Australian public."

"This is a means by which we can share our stories, our knowledge, the accumulated wisdom of more than a thousand generations."

To cultivate Indigenous talent after the success of 'Pecan Summer' in 2010, Deborah created the Short Black Opera Company and Dhungala Children’s Choir. The company seeks to provide a ‘clearly defined pathway for Indigenous singers in the world of Classical vocal music and opera’ as well as increasing Indigenous representation in the opera community and sharing Indigenous stories to a wider audience. 

Deborah has also been a prolific individual performer and has appeared in successive seasons of both her shows. In 2014, she was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia. 

Pecan Summer gets ready for their first performance at the Sydney Opera House
Opera Pecan Summer tells the emotionally impacting story of Alice, a Yorta Yorta girl in 1939 whose world becomes torn apart. Deborah Cheetham's cast is gearing up to perform this national masterpiece to Sydney audiences.
'Not just entertainment': Deborah Cheetham on the power of the arts
From Jessica Mauboy to Nakkiah Lui, Indigenous Australians are making their mark in the entertainment scene. Opera singer Deborah Cheetham says this new wave of artists has the power to unite Indigenous Australians with the broader community.

In 2015 she refused to perform the national anthem at the AFL Grand Final after concluding that it excluded Indigenous Australians. "I've really come to understand that to sing the word 'young' in relation to our country is really to perpetuate this idea that, of terra nullius really" she told NITV

Instead she has suggested the country adopt alternate lyrics 'in peace and harmony' which she says instead capture a more inclusive view of Australia. 

Opera singer Don Bemrose, has also been asked to take centre stage at many large scale sporting events, including this spectacular 'Call to Ceremony' for the 2011 Dreamtime at the G for the AFL. 

A proud Gungarri man, Don's mother and grandparents grew up in Cherbourg, the same town as his opera hero Harold Blair. 

After switching to singing after an injury ruled him out of contact sports, Don graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Music Performance from the University of Melbourne. Honing his baritone with vocal teacher Raymond Connel he acheived his childhood dream in 2012, becoming the the first Indigenous opera singer to perform with Opera Australia. 

Don has gone on to sing lead roles in three different operas including a role in 'Pecan Summer' and in The State Opera of South Australia's take on the classic Tim Winton novel 'Cloudstreet'. 

“For me, opera is the modern day corroboree. You are singing, you are dancing, you’ve got music. To me, it is everything that culturally we’ve always done. This is the current, biggest version of it in modern society" he told National Indigenous Times

As a gay Aboriginal man who has struggled with anxiety, Don is in a unique position to act as a role model to many in the community. A trained educator Don also runs a side project 'Positively Classical' where he works in performance, coaching and motivational speaking particularly with children and teenagers.

He also continues to make the odd performance in Canberra's musical theatre scene and is active on social media under the Twitter handle @OperaDon

Watch Deborah Cheetham in her Opera Pecan Summer now On Demand:

 


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