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Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer: An opera for all seasons. Part 1

| July 31, 2014

At once personal, communal and universal, Pecan Summer is an artistic achievement that both engages with and transcends the politics surrounding the traumatic events that lie at the heart of its story…

Pecan SummerWith Pecan Summer, Deborah Cheetham has made a very significant contribution to the broad body of Australian staged musical works. Notwithstanding the frequent mention of this being the first opera created by an Indigenous composer (and first to be performed by an Indigenous company), its strengths are as artistic and musical as they are cultural or historical.

Pecan Summer is an opera to the extent that most (not all) of the lead vocal roles are taken by operatic singers, and because, as with most opera, the vocal selections (accompanied by instrumental interludes but no spoken dialogue) divide into melodically restrictive recitatives and fully melodic songs. But as Graham Strahle notes later, Cheetham draws upon stage musicals as well as opera. Indeed, some of the ensemble numbers, such as ‘The Movie House’, are set pieces with a charm and musical form that would fit a Broadway musical context. In amongst the sung items Cheetham makes very effective use of a pair of Indigneous songs: ‘Bura Fera’, a traditional Yorta Yorta hymn adapted from the Old Testament Song of the Sea; and ‘Ella’s Lullaby’, which was given to Cheetham by a cousin (who had received it from her own grandmother).

One of Pecan Summer’s laudable musical characteristics is its accessibility. This music will ‘speak’ to audiences possessed of wide-ranging musical backgrounds and tastes, from classical instrumental and opera to stage musicals and popular song. Harmonically, there is little of the dissonant Sturm und Drang of late Romanticism (although one might hear touches of Erich Korngold, a favourite film composer of Cheetham). There is no use of expressly ‘modernist’ techniques such as atonalism or minimalism. Rather, the work incorporates a broadly conservative tonality that draws upon a variety of traditional and contemporary genres. Vocal melodic lines are clear and unaffected, suited as convincingly for contemporary as for operatically trained singers. And Cheetham’s score has been orchestrated with much skill and sensitivity by composer-arranger Jessica Wells, who imparts impressive clarity and timbral colour.

Standout performances in the July Adelaide run at Her Majesty’s Theatre, included the commanding operatic baritone of Tiriki Onus in the role of James, the powerful yet crystalline-clear stage musical voice of Jessica Hitchcock as young Alice, and the skilful and beautiful soprano of the composer in the role of Ella. Two of the lead singers, Eddie Bryant (as Jimmy) and Patricia Oakley (Mrs Joyce) possess very musical, but dynamically soft voices which were unfortunately overpowered by orchestra. Greater attention to dynamic balance could have helped here. The performance of the 25-member Adelaide Art Orchestra was otherwise in fine form, and the ensemble singing and choral singing (some of which featured the ‘Dhungala Choral Connection’ Indigenous children’s choir) was inspiringly full-bodied.

The opera’s 11 Scenes (including a Pre- and Postlude) are set into two Acts. With the exception of the stand-alone Prelude, which portrays the Dreamtime creation of the Dhungala (Murray River) via sung Yorta-Yorta text and contemporary dance, each scene takes the form of a vignette that provides insights into the events and psychological environment at particular points in the characters’ lives. Other than the Pre- and Postlude, all scenes but one are set in southern NSW or northern Victoria in 1939. Broadly, the story begins as a large contingent of the Yorta community at Cummeragunja prepares for its now historical walk-off, across the Murray River into Victoria, in protest to the harsh conditions at the station. Subsequent scenes deal with the community’s hardships during the Depression and the injustices experienced by the Stolen Generations and their families.

Deborah Cheetham Pecan Summer Act 2 - credit Robert JeffersonThe concluding Postlude (‘It’s a Miracle’) is set in Federation Square in 2008, where crowds have gathered to see Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology Speech televised from Canberra. Here solo, duet, and choral singing is set against recorded excerpts of Rudd’s speech. This was a scene that might have been aesthetically ruined by too much direct politicisation (or simply by the unmusical quality of Rudd’s voice). But the music/speech collage works well, and the scene emphasises personal over political implications. The audience by this point has come to a fuller realisation of the very real and direct impact that the formal Apology had for thousands of individuals and families whose lives had been devastated by the practice of child removals.

Various forms of oppression against Indigenous Australians – by cruel station bosses, by the co-complicit behaviour of church and state in the separation of children from their mothers, and by the threat of rape faced by Aboriginal women – are treated in a serious manner. Nonetheless, there is plenty of humour. Pecan Summer is at turns wry and light-hearted, though it never approaches the irony, satire or romp of Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae in Rachel Perkins’ cinematic version of that musical. Humour reflects realism, because light moments occur even in the lives of the oppressed and because a sense of humour is a characteristic of strong individuals in trying conditions.

Just as a broad accessibility is one of the hallmarks of Cheetham’s music, so too is the strength of her libretto. On the one hand, Pecan Summer is a deeply personal work: it tells the story of Cheetham’s own family and community. At the same time, the experiences portrayed are shared by many Aboriginal people of the Stolen Generations. Although the history it encapsulates is still (in 2014) quite politically charged, Cheetham represents this history not so much in a political manner as through lived experiences of her characters. In this way, she has rendered the work as a universal story of the human spirit, even as it represents the history of a particular Indigneous community.

Also unique is the creative and organisational force of nature that is Deborah Cheetham herself. Through her Short Black Opera Company she has utilised in Pecan Summer her own success in opera both as a means for inspiring and mentoring many other Indigenous performers and for telling important stories through song and music.

At once personal, communal and universal, Pecan Summer is an artistic achievement that both engages with and transcends the politics surrounding the traumatic events that lie at the heart of its story. In its first four years, performances of this remarkable work have been few. Without discounting the financial and other challenges of staging such a large work for a predominantly Indigenous cast, one would like to think that over time it will find many more productions and secure a rightful place within a canon of Australian staged musical work.

Title Image Credit: Pecan Summer Act 1. Photo Credit: Robert Jefferson
Article Image 1 Credit:  Deborah Cheetham Poster Image. Photo Credit: Jorge de Araujo
Article Image 2 Credit:  Deborah Cheetham Pecan Summer Act 2. Photo Credit: Robert Jefferson

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