Mending Opera’s Racist Ways

Last month The Guardian published an explosive article titled ‘Is Australian theatre racist?’ which quoted playwright Andrew Bovell as saying theatre in this country lacks racial diversity, as it refuses to tell multicultural stories, refuses to make any progress with colour-blind casting, and has failed to deal with racist attitudes.

Last month The Guardian published an explosive article titled ‘Is Australian theatre racist?’ which quoted playwright Andrew Bovell as saying theatre in this country lacks racial diversity, as it refuses to tell multicultural stories, refuses to make any progress with colour-blind casting, and has failed to deal with racist attitudes. The situation with opera might be even more shameful. Australia has produced exceedingly few Indigenous opera singers, for instance, and Aboriginal storytelling is right off the map as far as new opera. Harold Blair was a celebrated Aboriginal operatic tenor in the early 1950s, and Maroochy Barambah captured attention in 1989 when she sang in the opera Black River by composer Andrew Schultz about black deaths in custody. However, it took a further 21 years before the first opera appeared by an Indigenous Australian – Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer. Cheetham’s opera was also the first Australian opera cast for indigenous singers, but rather than being staged by one of our major opera companies, it was premiered in a high school arts centre in Mooroopna, Victoria. But an appropriate place it turned out to be, for this is the land where the idea of the opera originated. Pecan Summer tells the story of Cummeragunja walk-off in 1939, in which 150 residents left the Cummeragunja reserve in this country’s first mass strike by Aboriginal people. Among the protesters were Cheetham’s grandparents, and she explains that the walk-off was in protest of many issues, but particularly how authorities were treating the Aboriginal people. “In its external events therefore, [it] is a political opera,” she says. “You can’t divorce yourself from past events and just sit there seeing people treated in such an appalling way. It’s not written from a political point of view; instead it relates a personal point of view. It is three stories combined, of my grandmother, my mother, and myself. To make it political could only come about if Aboriginals wanted to be more like non-Aboriginal Australians.” Cheetham is one of the Stolen Generation. She was removed from her mother as an infant and raised by a white middle class Baptist family. It was only until 1985 that she came to meet her birth mother, Monica, and found out that tales of having been abandoned in a cardboard box by her were a lie. “Pecan Summer is a story that almost every Aboriginal person in Australia has been touched by – of being removed from their Aboriginal identity,” says Cheetham. “Aboriginal people deserve to have their story told. At the same time, it is also a story for all Australians. There will be mothers who have lost their children, whether they are Aboriginal or from the Holocaust, or for any other reason. Everyone will have a story to bring. My story and theirs will meet for a time, and that’s where opera can form part of a deeper, cultural narrative. It can only do this, however, if we as a country are prepared to move on, if Australia can move into a new level of maturity.” As a piece of cultural history, Pecan Summer may hold as much significance as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from 1935. This was the first opera to tell the story of Black America through its own eyes, and the first to employ an African-American cast. “The comparison is there to be drawn, not only as an opera but as an opera-going experience,” Cheetham observes. “The difference is that Porgy and Bess is a really bleak story. Pecan Summer, while it has heartrending moments, is a story of hope, about the reuniting of mother and daughter. I wanted to share my experience.” Pecan Summer has been restaged in Melbourne and Perth, and its Adelaide production this July will be its fourth season. The opera has “grown in its strength and storytelling ability,” says Cheetham. “I have changed it in places, to give it more space and breadth in order for audiences to take it in. So with each production there’s been the opportunity to fine-tune it.” Many of the cast will be the same. Adelaide’s Rosamund Illing takes the role of the minister’s wife, Jonathon& Welch (Choir of Hard Knocks) is the minister, and Cheetham herself sings the role of Ella, mother of Alice, who is a fictionalised victim of the Stolen Generation. Two Indigenous singers from South Australia will be in the cast: tenor Robert Taylor, one of the men of Cummeragunja, and Vonda Last, a well known figure in Adelaide’s Indigenous and children’s choirs. David Kram, formerly music director of State Opera of SA, conducts 25 orchestral musicians. Cameron Menzies, returning from directing Don Giovanni in London, directs the production by Short Black Opera Company. “It is an old-school opera, a large work,” Cheetham adds. “Any opera should be story telling. We’ve been singing our stories for tens of thousands of years and have almost an unending tradition of doing this. The way we have delivered our knowledge is via music, painting and dance. I don’t see any difference that we’re doing it here with opera. It comes back to how often do we look to Europe for cultural approval: when Australia fully achieves its age, it will no longer need to do that.” Pecan Summer Her Majesty’s Theatre Thursday, July 3 to Saturday, July 5 adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/shows/pecan-summer

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