• Ella (Deborah Cheetham) holds her daughter Alice (Jessica Hitchcock) before she is taken away by authorities (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Deborah Cheetham explains some of her most compelling songs in her award-winning Aboriginal opera, Pecan Summer.
By
Emily Nicol

3 Feb 2017 - 12:26 PM  UPDATED 3 Feb 2017 - 12:26 PM

Pecan Summer tells the story of 11-year-old Alice (played by Jessica Hitchock) who has walked-off Cummeragunja Mission with her family to strike at the Murray river bank. Curious and feisty by nature, she goes off wandering into town. Alice is taken by child protection services and put into care of the local Minister's wife.

Pecan Summer; commemorating the anniversary of the Cummeragunja Walk-off
Pecan Summer is a contemporary opera telling a historic story, and NITV commemorates the Cummeragunja walk-off through Deborah Cheetham's music this Saturday.

The Cummeragunja Walk-Off was the first mass protest of Aboriginal people and Pecan Summer is the first Aboriginal opera production in Australia, united, they has many amazing stories to convey. 

 

No School Today/Movie House

Deborah Cheetham describes the ‘No School Today/Movie House’ scene in Pecan Summer as being the turning point of the whole opera, a scene exploring the “natural curiosity” of children that age in 1939.

Young Alice’s brother had told her about the magical, big screen cinema, and on a day where there happened to be no school (their teacher was helping to deliver her sister’s child) and with time on their hands, the children debated whether to play by the river, play hide and seek or visit the newborn. Though they knew they weren’t supposed to, their childish wonder and natural desire to explore the world led them in to town and then on to the Movie House.

The power of this song is in the innocent rapture of a natural human desire to explore, juxtaposed against the trauma of this instinctual action resulting in Alice being picked up by authorities and removed from her family.

 

Exodus

Set in 1939 on Cummergunja Mission, the residents make a unified resolution to leave the mission with their all their belongings for a future that lay on the other side of the 'Dhungala' or Murray River. Deborah says, “This is the moment when the people take their destiny in to their own hands. They did it together. It’s more complex and nuanced than we can say in opera, but the idea is that that walk off was successful in removing the corrupt mission manager. Aboriginal people have never doubted their capability and resilience, this is only something that we have been taught. Those men and women were only 70 years away from that traditional way of living.”

Deborah explains that this powerful moment had a huge impact on our current identity. “They weren’t walking off country, in fact it was very smart as they simply crossed the border from NSW to VIC, essentially out of the legal powers of the mission manager, yet still on Yorta Yorta land. It was a defining moment. A lot of the leadership that propelled that exodus went on to draft the 1967 referendum. It’s part of Australia’s history that is still yet to be discovered, yet it’s really fundamental to our history.”

 

This is My Place and This is My Daughter/Ella's Aria

The pain of a mother’s worst fear is realised after her daughter, Alice is forcibly removed from her family by authorities. When Ella arrives at the church to retrieve her daughter, the minister’s wife convenes saying there is no way they are going to let her go. The policeman who has come to arrest Ella says to her, ‘You need to learn your place" and with that,  Ella responds – ‘This is my Country -  you can’t tell me I need to learn my place. And - this Is my daughter.’ 

It is a powerful song about in Pecan Summer itself, and a moving anthem of Australia's history of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families. 

 

This is a miracle  

Set in contemporary Melbourne, on the occasion is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd giving his apology to the Stolen Generations in 2007. The people listening sing, ‘It’s a Miracle’.

As with all the songs in the opera, this is from Deborah’s personal experience and emotion. Deborah told NITV that, "all the exhilaration and anticipation that we felt days before and when the apology was delivered. We were still wondering if he would say 'Sorry?' And How many times and in what context? It was a momentous day, for Aboriginal people and particularly stolen generation."

"The opera begins and ends with entire company on stage ... And that is deliberate, because my goal is that we have a nation that is no longer divided, and in order to have that there is a huge gap in knowledge that needs to be filled.”

 

'The Secrets of Pecan Summer' (a documentary) airs Saturday 4 Feburary at 7.30pm and 'Pecan Summer: The Opera' airs Saturday 4 Feburary at 8.30pm on NITV Channel 34. 

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