Aboriginal Australia’s first opera tells the story of the Cummeragunja walk-off and the oppression, displacement and bittersweet triumph that came with it.
The story of Cummeragunja
80 years ago, Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve, located on the NSW side of the Murray River opposite Barmah, became a place of dictatorial abuse. Always a place of suppression and confinement, the mission, which was under the care of the Government, turned particularly problematic especially, when a new supervisor Mr A.J McQuiggan was appointed to manage the reserve.
McQuiggan had a reputation for being abusive, intimidating and cruelly violent and his demeanour more than preceded him while in charge of the large number of Yorta Yorta people living at Cummeragunja. During the years he was manager, conditions at the mission deteriorated, children died of preventable diseases under his care and his brutality became intolerable. Residents were given no blankets in the freezing winters, rations were scarce and the circumstances were similar to that of a European gulag.
One year later, a petition against McQuiggan’s management was handed to the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board by the residents of Cummeragunja, with the assistance of William Cooper of the Australian Aborigines League. The protection board in fact sent the petition to McQuiggan himself, which unsurprisingly made circumstances for the residents of Cummeragunja far worse.
By 1939, Jack Patten of the Aborigines Progressive Association returned to the mission by request of his father who was still a resident. He powerfully rallied for the residents to protest against the inhumane treatment they were subjected to; at the mission and in wider Australia under racist policies and attitudes. Pattern was arrested for ‘inciting Aborigines’, but what was to follow on 4 February was imaginable.
Nearly 200 Cummeragunja residents ‘walked-off’ the reserve in protest. They crossed the Murray River and set up a strike camp, where for nine months they put pressure on the Government to adhere to their demands. McQuiggan wasn’t sacked, but was transferred. The Cummeragunja walk-off was the first mass strike of Aboriginal people in Australia.
With so much more to the story of Cummeragunja, including the stolen generations, the personal struggle of becoming a domestic refugee in your own lands and the events that followed the walk-off - Deborah Cheetham AO’s Opera Pecan Summer takes this moment from the pages of history books and tells the story to Australia through the art of music.
Pecan Summer is the story of 11-year-old Alice (played by Jessica Hitchcock) who takes part in the walk-off with her family and camps at the banks of the Murray. She goes into the nearby town, curiously searching for adventure. While separated from her family, Alice is captured by child protection officers. She is then ‘rescued’ by the Minister’s wife, who is unable to have children of her own, where she is kept. Her mother (played by Deborah Cheetham) is devastated.
This production recently received 9 categories of the Broadway World Awards or 2016.
Deborah Cheetham says, The walk-off from Cummeragunja is an epic tale.
“Deserving of an opera and we are so proud of our Sydney Opera House production. Opportunities to view Australia’s history through an Indigenous lens are rare in the world of opera. Pecan Summer is an opera for the 21st century, a contemporary opera for Indigenous Australians, a story for all Australians.”
The secrets of Pecan Summer
In the process of researching her Opera, Deborah, taken from her mother and her people at just 3 weeks of age, uncovered the surprising family history she had never known. The Secrets of Pecan Summer is an intimate look at the story behind the first Indigenous Opera, and its extraordinary journey to the stage of the Sydney Opera House. It features behind the scenes footage of renowned Soprano Deborah Cheetham and reveals the touching story of her own grandparents, who bravely walked-off Cummeragunja mission in 1939.
NITV Channel Manager Tanya Orman says the Channel couldn’t be more proud.
“NITV tells Indigenous stories, and we are so proud to broadcast Opera as a powerful new way of storytelling on NITV. Deborah’s personal story is a remarkable one of identity, struggle, and reconnection, and is tied to such an important moment in our history.”
'The Secrets of Pecan Summer' airs Saturday 4 Feburary at 7.30pm and 'Pecan Summer: The Opera' airs Saturday 4 Feburary at 8.30pm on NITV Channel 34.