Deborah Cheetham AO makes debut with Opera Queensland
Brisbane audiences were treated to an intimate and heartfelt recital with Indigenous soprano Deborah Cheetham AO in Opera Queensland’s studio series last weekend.
Deborah is well-known to audiences across Australia, enjoying a career as an opera singer and composer. She has established a national not-for-profit opera company devoted to developing Indigenous talent, Short Black Opera. Deborah was awarded the Order of Australia in 2014 for her significant contribution to performing arts.
On Saturday, we had the chance to appreciate the rich timbre and varied colours of her voice as it filled the small studio space. Deborah was accompanied by Toni Lalich OAM on piano. Deborah was resplendent in a sequinned blue jacket that sparkled in the stage lights.
Songs my mother sang to me featured music by Glanville-Hicks, Kats-Chernin, Bauld, Boulanger, Cilea, Strauss, Puccini, Mascagni and Gounodof, as well as Deborah’s own compositions. Deborah said the program celebrated music that shaped her identity and inspired her as a singer.
After a welcome from Opera Queensland artistic director Patrick Nolan, Deborah took the stage. Deborah sang in her home tongue, the Yorta Yorta language, as well as Italian, French, German and English, which was quite impressive. In between each of the arias, she gave us insight into the music and told us a little of her story.
The concert opened with Lo son l’umile ancella (I am the humble servant of the creative spirit) from the opera Adriana Lecouvreur, by Francesco Cilèa. Deborah’s voice soared to great heights before leading into her acknowledgement of country, Long time living here, in her Yorta Yorta language.
For the next aria, Love, Live For Ever from Paganini by Franz Lehár, Deborah spoke of her experiences attending operas as a student, where her dream was born. This well-known and much-loved aria was perfect for letting Deborah’s passion and artistic mastery shine.
The Water is Wide, a traditional tune arranged by Frank Gallagher, came up next in the program. Deborah said she was inspired to perform it through her connections to the Indigenous peoples of Murray river, and as a tribute to the Brisbane river. Deborah sang this simple song warmly.
Silent Noon by Ralph Vaughan Williams presented a moment of idyllic peace and tranquility. Deborah rendered its rising and falling melody with tenderness.
Deborah said seeing African American soprano Leona Mitchell perform the lead role of Tosca was a pivotal moment for her as a young student. Fittingly, Deborah then performed the challenging aria Vissi d’arte (I lived for Art) from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. The following work, also by Puccini, Senza mamma (Without Mum) from the opera Suor Angelica, was full of tension and longing.
The next aria, Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (Well, then? I’ll go far away) from the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani, spoke of forbidden love and defiance. Deborah enjoyed singing this one.
The program then visited Australian composers, with A Birthday by Elena Kats-Chernin and Come Sleep by Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Deborah sang with humour and wit for A Birthday, and then Come Sleep with soothing sensitivity.
Deborah introduced us to a lesser-known French composer, Lili Boulanger. She performed two of her arias, Un poète disait (A Poet Said) and Au pied de mon lit (At the Foot of my Bed). Deborah brought these pieces to life, showcasing the breadth of her vocal artistry.
Shifting to a contemporary focus, the next piece was a World Premiere of Isolation Hymn by Andrew Ford. This work told the story of artists in Melbourne during COVID lockdowns last year and their long road back. Deborah sang this with authentic, lived-through emotion and a sense of gratitude and relief to be back on stage.
Finally, we came to the work that inspired the tile of the recital. Songs my mother taught me by Antonin Dvorák was chance for Deborah to share the passing on of knowledge, songs and stories, from her Indigenous heritage. Deborah also shared with us that she was a Stolen Generations child, who was reunited with her family as an adult. Thus, the piece and the recital were a challenging reflection on what it means to be an Indigenous woman in the sometimes high-brow world of opera.
Deborah closed the concert with a dedication, Zueignung by Richard Strauss. She sent us off into the rainy afternoon filled with lush, peaceful music.
In all, Songs my mother sang to me was a thoroughly enjoyable concert. It was a real privilege to see Deborah Cheetham make her debut with Opera Queensland through exploring the music that has shaped and influenced her.
Follow Deborah Cheetham here.
Opera Queensland Studio Series
What: Tenor Gregory Massingham and pianist Stephen Emmerson present Schubert’s complete song-cycle, Winterreise.
When: Friday 7th May 7pm, Saturday 8th May 2pm
Where: Opera Queensland Studio, 140 Grey St, South Brisbane
Tickets: $85. Book here.
More info: Here.