Photo – Jorge de Arauj
There are special moments in life when you know you’re witnessing history being made. Pecan Summer feels that special. It’s Australia’s first Indigenous opera and it brings an important chapter in our history to the stage using one of the world’s oldest musical art forms, performed by a cast of people belonging to the world’s oldest living culture.
Pecan Summer is framed by sixty thousand years of history and covers 70 years of dispossession. The story begins in Federation Square in 2006 when a soup-van volunteer discovers that an elderly Aboriginal police liaison officer called Alice is part of the stolen generation. The opera follows the story of her life, her mother’s life, and echoes the lives of so many other Aboriginal Australians who were stolen from their families in one of the darkest periods in our colonial history.
In 1939, almost three decades before Aboriginal people were classed as citizens and not flora and fauna, 200 residents walked off Cummeragunja Mission on the NSW side of the Murray River because the conditions were so poor and the removal of children from their families was condoned. The mostly Yorta Yorta people crossed the Dhungala (Murray River) to protest and demand the removal of the station's manager. Many of them settled in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, which is where Pecan Summer officially premiered in 2010. I was privileged to be at that premiere in Shepparton and can attest that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Dry eyes were also few and far between at the conclusion of Wednesday night’s opening at the Playhouse; the cast were treated to a prolonged standing ovation. The story of Pecan Summer is simple and affecting, the music often haunting. Deborah Cheetham's inspired choral version of the Lord's Prayer is breathtaking and the use of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Sorry speech at the end has a profound effect.
Despite the drama of the material and some extraordinary performances, however, Pecan Summer doesn’t hit quite the notes it could have with better staging and more light and shade in the libretto. More microphones are required as unfortunately much of the libretto is lost to the orchestra, particularly if you’re seated towards the back. There is a lack of movement that is unexpected since the show begins with a stunning dance sequence by the very talented dancer Surmsah Bin Saad; more movement and a more inventive set design would go a long way to lift the occasionally ponderous libretto.
There are some stunning voices in Pecan Summer. Acclaimed soprano Deborah Cheetham’s voice is pure and elegant; she gives a truly moving performance as Ella, Alice’s mother. Rosamund Illing, one of Australia’s most distinguished sopranos, is a scene stealing powerhouse. Wiradjuri woman Shauntaii Batzke, playing the older Alice, has a beautiful voice and enigmatic stage presence. Gungarri Baritone Don Bemrose, Yorta Yorta Bass Baritone Tiriki Onus and Bunjalung woman Caitlin Munro are all standouts. It’s Jessica Hitchcock playing the young Alice, however, who steals the show. Hitchcock is clearly born for the stage. Her performance is nuanced, her projection extraordinary. It’s impossible to take your eyes from her.
Pecan Summer is a remarkable achievement by composer, librettist and director Deborah Cheetham. Cheetham researched the story (and in the process discovered her own Aboriginal Grandparents whom she never knew were at Cummeragunja), travelled the country to find, audition and teach 15 Aboriginal singers, and has written and composed her first opera. Watching it is a moving experience, one I would recommend to every Australian.
Short Black Opera presents
by Deborah Cheetham
Director Deborah Cheetham
Venue: Playhouse | the Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dates: 28 – 30 Sep 2011
Tickets: $28.00 – $90.00