High Expectations: A Journey with Deborah Cheetham
Deborah Cheetham is a rather remarkable woman. She penned the words to an autobiographical play that has toured internationally, has performed across Europe as a soprano soloist, written an Opera based on a late 1930s protest in an Indigenous community and, as of late 2010, created a fully-fledged opera company of her own. In short, she keeps herself busy. And yet, she still finds the time to invest as a mentor and ambassador in Gawura, St Andrew’s K-6 school which caters to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Given St Andrew’s rich culture in the performing arts and deep investment in Indigenous communities, it’s no wonder that a visit from someone of Deborah Cheetham’s calibre would be cause for excitement – her visits to the Gawura campus, and her many words of encouragement on the potential of every individual, are always met with excitement by a bevy of young learners.
There’s a remarkable storyteller in Deborah, a proud Yorta Yorta woman whose people were the traditional custodians of the Murray-Goulburn stretch in Victoria. She has utilised opera as a means to relay information, to have a conversation with society about her people. “Music,” says Deborah, “is the most effective way to tell stories… It’s a really typical way for Aboriginal people to communicate.”
But there is a greater goal that lies beyond the surface of Deborah’s work – a wish to proclaim through performance, the abilities of so many young Aboriginals who are flourishing in creative industries. The way that she articulates it is short, to the point. This is a woman who has cultivated great talent in her own opera, Pecan Summer, has recognised the great potential in young Indigenous people. “I want to raise expectations. There is so much success out there (amongst Aboriginal people), but it’s something you never get to hear about. It’s not unusual for Aboriginal people to achieve and to be successful – and that’s the message that I want to put out there.”
Students in Gawura are provided with ample opportunities to grow and succeed, particularly in the arts. Georgia and Rachel Durmush, former Gawura students who are now in St Andrew’s Middle School, were given the opportunity to perform in Deborah’s Pecan Summer as members of the show’s cast. Both sisters were thrilled at the opportunity to be included in a large-scale opera production. “You can take a lot of opportunities at this school,” says Rachel, with a smile.
In her visits to the campus, Deborah aims to inspire young Gawura students to achieve great things themselves, to focus on their passions. On one recent visit, she shared parts of her personal story with them – the pride in being able to complete schooling and university when no one before her in her family had been given such opportunities. Her message to her young audience was not to shy away from challenge and to have big imaginations, to set high goals. “You need your imagination first,” she said to a class of eager faces. “Do you know what you have to imagine? That you’re going to have wonderful, successful lives.”
Words: Micah Chua