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Deborah Cheetham, AO

by Suzanne Yanko

Classic Melbourne salutes Deborah Cheetham AO, on her Award for distinguished service to the performing arts as an opera singer, composer and artistic director, to the development of indigenous artists, and to innovation in performance. Cheetham is in very good company, with fellow composers Carl Vine and Graeme Koehne also honoured in the current list.

A concert Cheetham gave at the Melbourne Recital Centre in February this year illustrated not only her beautiful voice, but her story. As a tribute, we are proud to present our review of that concert.

Til the Black Lady Sings
Melbourne Recital Centre
5 February
Reviewer Suzanne Yanko
Four stars ****
There was a particular poignancy to Deborah Cheetham’s rendition of Dvorak’s Songs my mother taught me as she had already told the audience it was her adoptive mother who taught her songs – Cheetham was one of the Stolen Generation. Much of the singer’s story was revealed some years ago in her play White Baptist Abba Fan – but as a lead act in the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival, this performance revealed an artistry which even devoted Cheetham fans may not have suspected.

Deborah Cheetham is an opera singer. Inspired as a child by the great Joan Sutherland among others, Cheetham trained at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and made her debut at the Sydney Opera House in 1997. Through her company Short Black Productions Cheetham has explored issues of aboriginality, gender and sexuality – and while Til the Black Lady Sings appeared to be dominated by a traditional operatic repertoire, most songs also illuminated Cheetham’s own story.

Many concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre begin with a Welcome to Country, but this had particular significance. There was an extended welcome to many groups, including Cheetham’s own Yorta Yorta people for whom she performed the folksong Way Waly (The water is wide) and then Biami Creation Story from her opera *Pecan Summer. Guest artist Tiriki Onus lent his rich bass baritone to this creation story of the Yorta Yorta people and Dhunghala (the Murray River).

As for Cheetham herself, she displayed a voice equally comfortable with light-hearted music like Lehar’s Long live forever, and powerful works by Puccini, Richard Strauss and Catalani. Many, like the Dvorak, referenced mothers and children, and conveyed a deep sadness.

Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, chosen for its “story-telling”, was the perfect vehicle for Cheetham’s powerful resonant voice, the song enhanced by shadings in volume and articulation. In this, as throughout, Cheetham had sympathetic accompaniment from pianist Toni Lalich (“My partner in life and music”, the singer announced, to enthusiastic applause).

George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess “brought black and white audiences together in the 1930s” Cheetham told the audience – and the message for her own mixed audience was clear. Summertime was the obvious choice to end the program, for its subject matter, its languorous mood tinged with sadness – and its suitability for Cheetham’s lovely voice. The opening high notes were achieved with ease, and the audience seemed entranced until the last falling phrase – and beyond.

The range and depth of Cheetham’s soprano voice is impressive – but this is one concert that seemed to hit the heights throughout!
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Review originally written by Suzanne Yanko for artsHub Australia.

Deborah Cheetham’s story can be read on her own website http://www.deborahcheetham.com/biography

* Her opera Pecan Summer is to be performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide July 3-5, 2014. For tickets go to http://www.bass.net.au/events/pecan-summer.aspx

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