After having almost been wiped out during the European invasion, the Yorta Yorta peoples — whose tribal lands cover some 20,000 square kilometres from Cohuna to Albury-Wodonga –would, some 150 years later, take part in the first mass protest action by Indigenous Australians. In February 1939, with Europe once again on the brink of war, around 200 Aborigines, most of them Yorta Yorta, walked off the Cummeragunja Mission in southern New South Wales in protest at their maltreatment and dire living conditions. The singer-songwriter Jimmy Little, then not yet two years old, was among them.
Fast-forward 70 years and Little’s niece, soprano, librettist and composer Deborah Cheetham, is at the opening night of her opera based on the walk off, Pecan Summer — the first indigenous opera in Australia’s history — at the Westside Performing Arts Centre in Mooroopna, Victoria. The theatre is just a short walk away from where the Yorta Yorta settled after their 120-kilometre journey from Cummeragunja.
Now, following that emotionally charged premiere on country, and subsequent seasons in Melbourne and Perth, Pecan Summer is being staged in Adelaide by Cheetham’s indigenous, not-for-profit company Short Black Opera. It has had an unusually long life for a contemporary Australian opera; it is Cheetham’s desire for it to be seen in every state and territory before, perhaps, taking it to the world. It is, on the strength of this revival, not yet ready for an international audience, remaining, for the moment, a bold and deeply heartfelt but still young work teeming with both promise and imperfection.
In the opera’s prelude, out of a star-flecked darkness (dutala) representing the beginning of time, comes Gomuka (Jennifer Williams) who draws the path of Dhungala (the Murray River) in the dry earth. It is the same river, countless years later, that the Yorta Yorta — whose language the prelude is sung in — will cross from NSW into Victoria to escape the oppression of the so-called Aboriginal Protection Board. It is a brave and auspicious opening, situating the Murray River Dreaming story and its ancient oral history at the heart of the opera and, in the process, subversively unseating the genre’s more customary European dialects.
The heroine, Alice, is introduced in the following scene as an old woman (Shauntai Batzke) who, the action having shifted to early 21st century Melbourne, appears to us initially as a ‘parkie’, an Aboriginal vagrant waiting her turn for yet another handout at the mobile soup kitchen. In a darkly familiar exchange, Alice is accosted by a young, drunken racist (Matthew Reardon): ‘What have you ever done in your life?’ Alice is, in fact, a senior refuge worker. She is also — like Cheetham herself — a member of the Stolen Generations.
The narrative spirals back in time once again, Alice’s memories transporting us to the summer of 1939, and to the banks of Dhungula on the edge of the Cummeragunja mission. A group of children, among them the young Alice (Jessica Hitchcock) and her older brother Jimmy (Eddie Bryant), are playing. The scene’s chaotic joyfulness is dispelled by the arrival of a police officer — he is looking for Alice who, used to these sorts of impositions, leaps into the river to conceal herself. She knows, just as surely as we do, what her fate will be if caught. In the eyes of the mission’s manager, McGuiggan (Stephen Grant), she is a prime candidate for being fostered out but Cheetham’s libretto makes it clear that McGuiggan is not some aberrant monster, merely a figurehead of a deeply unjust system of enforced removal which, as we know from the first scene, will succeed with or without him in severing Alice from her family and from her culture.
It is, to be sure, the stuff of opera — a narrative both intimate and sweeping, richly polarised, full of cruelty and the soaring of the human spirit in response. There is no mystery as to why Cheetham felt opera to be the natural vehicle for Alice’s story — in fact, largely, her own story. The marriage of Yorta Yorta history, both recent and ancient, and arguably the most European of all the arts, does not seem an ill fit while Pecan Summer is playing. Cheetham’s score, which she finds hard to describe, reflecting as it does an array of influences from Franz Lehar’s light opera The Merry Widow to traditional Aboriginal hymns and lullabies, is highly accomplished, always poised between the deep bassiness of the earth and the freewheeling litheness of the sky and air.
There is no doubting Cheetham’s skillfulness as a soprano, either (she plays Ella, Alice and Jimmy’s mother), or that of most of the ensemble, the standouts of which include the powerful baritone Tiriki Onus, who plays Ella’s husband James, and Jonathon Welch who impresses in multiple roles including a scene-stealing evangelical minister in the second act. The young leads, Hitchcock and Bryant, are consistently delightful stage presences, Bryant compensating for his noticeable deficiencies in training and experience with unforced enthusiasm. The Dhungala Children’s Choir, formed in 2010 especially for Pecan Summer, provides welcome lightness, and connects the opera to the traditional choral singing that flourished among the Cummeragunja families. Cheetham has said that the opera’s most significant evolution between seasons has been the increasing professionalism of its cast, many of whom have enrolled in and, in some cases, graduated from music training courses since first joining the company as mostly or wholly untrained performers.
Unfortunately, one of Pecan Summer’s chief problems, identified by some critics during previous seasons, remains — that too much of Cheetham’s English libretto is lost, occasionally drowned out by, in this instance, the Adelaide Art Orchestra, and sometimes made indiscernible by poor technique or uncertain direction. There are other shortcomings, most notably a curious lack of forward motion in act one that results in a confused and unsatisfying end to the opera’s first half, and a lack of energy and urgency both between and during scenes. The opera’s climax, built around Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, is not the catharsis it is clearly intended to be because it feels unearned, robbed of much of its impact by the failure of the preceding acts to sufficiently scaffold the moment.
Despite its weaknesses, however, Pecan Summer is to be applauded. It remains remarkable that a wholly indigenous opera exists a mere 50 years after Australia’s first peoples were acknowledged in the country’s constitution. It will no doubt come to be regarded as important in its own way as the famous apology it celebrates, a daring and wholehearted stepping stone on the long path that is this country’s journey to come to terms with, and to heal from, the most shameful aspects of its recent past.