In front of a capacity crowd at Federation Hall at the VCA, Soprano, Composer, Artistic Director, stand-in Conductor, Educator and Mentor, Deborah Cheetham AO (is there nothing this woman can’t do?), addressed the audience on behalf of the Dhungala Children’s Choir & Short Black Opera. With passion and conviction, she spoke about “what an honour it was to sing and share these songs.” And for us, the audience, it was a privilege to witness such an uplifting, intimate performance of stories of connection, culture, family and resilience.
The program brought to life original songs from the Dhungala Choral Connection Song Book: Volume 1, celebrating the language and culture of the Yorta Yorta, Kamilaroi, Wadawurrung, Banjima, Dhauwurd Wurrung, Barkindji, Boon Wurrung and Bundjalung nations. Together with excerpts from Pecan Summer, Australia’s first Indigenous Opera – created, composed & staged by SBO originally in 2010. It recounts the story of the 1939 Cummeragunja Walk-off, marking a watershed moment in Australian history, when 200 Yorta Yorta people, defiantly walked away in a mass protest against the oppression and injustice of losing their land, children and language.
In fact, Deborah founded the opera company specifically to develop Indigenous talent and to present Indigenous stories authentically; and the children’s choir was born from there.
The work in the songbook (including contributions from the children themselves inspired by Dreamtime Stories), has largely been the result of the past 18 months; culminating in last weekend’s three-day intensive workshop and performance, with participants coming from all over the country.
Deborah introduced each song within a historical, cultural or linguistics context, delivering it with poignancy or wit. Sometimes both.
This definitely gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the work and what struck me immediately, was her generous spirit, vibrancy and sheer devotion to unearthing and fostering that talent.
With unbridled joy radiating from their faces, it was quite beautiful to see the children being empowered by giving them a voice – letting them tell their stories, honouring their ancestors and celebrating their culture; and in doing so, making us really listen, think and feel.
The lyrics were so visceral and poetic, evoking such a sense of country and rich vivid imagery, that it definitely had an emotional impact on me.
Soprano, Shauntai Batzke (a recipient of the prestigious 2014 Harold Blair Opera Scholarship and Wiradjuri woman), performed ‘Womin Jeka’ (Welcome) and was utterly beguiling with her stage presence.
‘Do You Know Me?’ a song of exquisite honesty and frustration, asking why we keep having the same conversations. It brought tears to my eyes.
‘Reconciliation Now!!’ expressed the desire of healing for our nation and making us one. It received rapturous applause and deservedly so. And “Our Song” was not just a song, as Deborah explained, but “our way home.”
The events of 1939 translate so fittingly to the dramatic elements of opera, that I was thoroughly captivated by the absolute heartbreak of ‘Alice in 1964’, the merriment of ‘Hairy Bekka’ (with the wonderfully commanding Bass Baritone, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) and the lament in ‘The Meeting Scene and Exodus’ by the SBO Ensemble.
Jessica Hitchcock, (choir member & creative collaborator, together with Deborah and Toni Lalich, SBO’s Company Manager and accompanist) was another stand out. With a kilowatt smile and the sweetest of voices, I hope to see a lot more of her in the future.
And of Archie Roach AM, who embodies such quiet grace and dignity. The revered singer, songwriter, storyteller & inspiration to Indigenous artists (young and old) closed the show, performing two songs from his forthcoming album with the children, ‘Let Love Rule’ and ‘No More Bleeding’. What a precious experience and memory for them all.
For me, as a non-Indigenous Australian, it’s left an indelible impression.
As Deborah said so eloquently, “these children are on a journey of who they are and who they will become … and their way of giving meaning to everything in the world, is through the visual and performing arts.” What a beautiful legacy to be invited to.
Short Black Opera presents
The Dhungala Children's Choir in Concert with Archie Roach AM
Venue: Federation Hall, Grant Street Southbank VIC
Date: 13 June 2016
Tickets: $20 – $10