You’re in the minority if you’re a woman composer. But an Aboriginal woman composer is a very rare thing. Deborah Cheetham has written her first opera and it opened in Perth at the State Theatre this week.

While opera houses around the world are battling bankruptcy soprano Cheetham has been establishing a new one. Short Black Opera is Australia’s first indigenous opera company. Cheetham reasons that opera – story told through song and dance – is what Aboriginals have been doing for centuries in corroboree. With the backing of industry heavyweights like Jonathon Welch(Choir of Hard Knocks), Australian soprano Rosamund Illing, the Dame NellieMelba Opera Trust and a swag of sponsors, Cheetham’s dream has become reality.

Pecan Summer is written, scored and directed by Cheetham. The opera recounts the 1939 story of the 200 Yorta Yorta people who left Cummeragunja Mission and crossed the Dhungala (Murray) river into Victoria as a protest against the withholding of wages and abuse of Aboriginal people. The opera opens with the Dreamtime creation of the Dhungala and closes with Kevin Rudd’s apology speech, but Cheetham condenses the epic story around the fictitious nine year old character Alice, a member of the stolen generation.  

The cast included indigenous singers Cheetham scouted from around Australia including the sonorous John Wayne Parsons as Alice’s father James, Eddie Bryant as Alice’s brother Jimmy and the magnificent bass baritone Tiriki Onus as Uncle Bill. Cheetham sang Alice’s mother Ella with sustained lyrical beauty. Sydney soprano Jessica Hitchcock was endearing as the young Alice and the connection between the mother and daughter made the imminent separation heartbreaking.

Dhungala locals including the newly formed Dhungala Children’s Choir were supplemented by WA indigenous singers Michael Smith, Billie Court, Tori Oakley, Patricia Oakley, Jub Clerc, Vonda Last and Michael Smith.

The singers were impressive: raw talent honed by Cheetham’s intensive Wilin summer school program. Cheetham’s neo-romantic music (orchestrated by Jessica Wells) was well-written for voice, building to a sweeping Puccini-esque climax and interspersed with comic cameo moments. The river theme, the lyrical lullaby and the musical commentary underscoring the church scene were particularly effective.

Theatrical moments were flawed: a clunky set, awkward silence between set pieces and lack of stage direction for singers. The Perth SymphonyOrchestra (conductor David Kram) often overwhelmed the dialogue.

 Still, the power of the story was persuasive and the opening night audience reacted (as did the Victorian audience at the premiere) with a standing ovation. This is one of the world’s oldest musical art forms performed by a cast of people belonging to the world’s oldest living culture. The story belongs to all Australians and Cheetham has found a fresh way of telling it.

Pecan Summer closes Saturday 8th. For tickets go to BOCS.