Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer will receive a one-off performance at the Opera House.

When Deborah Cheetham started writing Pecan Summer, Australia’s first Indigenous opera, telling the story of the walk-off from the Cummeragunja mission, she had no idea that her own family had been involved in the protest. Cheetham is an Indigenous opera soprano, composer, director and producer from the Yorta Yorta nation. Looking for a subject for an opera, she was told about the 1939 protest by Aboriginal elders. The Cummeragunja Mission walk-off was the first mass strike by Indigenous people in which more than 200 people, most Yorta Yorta men, women and children, left the mission in protest at the appalling, inhumane conditions. Crossing the Dhungala (Murray) River, they set up camp and demanded the removal of the station’s manager.

When Cheetham began researching the protest, she discovered that her own grandparents had been involved, leaving the mission with their first son, Jimmy Little, then just two years old. Cheetham, it turns out, is the niece of Little, now an acclaimed singer/songwriter. “It was just wild. The last decade of my life has been the most incredible uncovering of things that I never knew,” she says.

“From the time that I wrote White Baptist Abba Fan in 1997 [a one-woman show in which she told the story of discovering that she was a member of the “stolen generations” raised by a Baptist Minister and his wife, and finding her biological mother] right through to today, all these years later, I am still piecing together knowledge about my family that a lot of people would take for granted,” she says.

Set in 1939, Pecan Summer interweaves the personal and the political. Alice is just nine years old when she and her family leave the Cummeragunja mission as part of the walk-off and camp on the banks of the Dhungala. Going into town looking for adventure, Alice is captured by child protection officers but “rescued” by the Baptist Minister’s wife who is unable to have children and decides to keep Alice as her own. Musically, Cheetham’s score reflects an range of influences from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow to traditional Aboriginal hymns and lullabies.

The opera premiered in 2010 in Mooroopna, Victoria in a small theatre just a short walk away from where the Yorta Yorta settled after their 120-kilometre journey from Cummeragunja. It has since had seasons in Melbourne in 2011, Perth in 2012 and Adelaide in 2014. The success of the opera led to the formation of Short Black Opera, a national not-for-profit opera company, run by Cheetham, which is devoted to the development of Aboriginal opera singers.

Now Short Black Opera is about to stage a one-off performance in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House on September 12. To present it at the Opera House is incredibly special for Cheetham for it was there that she fell in love with opera at the age of 14 when she was taken by her school to see Dame Joan Sutherland in The Merry Widow. She still remembers that moment vividly. It was 1979, February 17 to be exact, a date forever etched in her mind. She even remembers the seat number: stalls L23. A school teacher encouraged her nascent love of opera and she went on to become Australia’s foremost Indigenous soprano.

For its Sydney outing, Pecan Summer is getting a new production. “It’s mostly the production design that is different,” says Cheetham. “There are a few little additions to the score. But I felt what we had to do was to harness the energy of the Concert Hall – because the Concert Hall is a magnificent, iconic space but not a proscenium arch theatre, which is what our original production was designed for. So rather than work against that, we wanted to harness the great, towering energy of the atrium over the stage so that’s what we are planning to do using 3D mapping technology. Sydneysiders will know it from Vivid, of course [when images are projected onto the Opera House sails],” she says.

Pecan Summer features a design by Nicholas Tory of Ample Projects and visual design content by leading Indigenous photographic artist Wayne Quilliam. “For a little company like Short Black Opera, we wanted to push to the edge of what we could possibly manage to create a flexibility that projected images potentially provides as opposed to having great big sets. We still have the original production, which will probably have its next outing on the anniversary of the Cummeragunja walk-off in 2019 back up on country where we premiered it in 2010,” says Cheetham.

Cheetham not only wrote the original production but also directed it and played Alice’s mother Ella, as she will do again in Sydney. However, for the Sydney season she has decided to step back from directing. Instead, Cameron Menzies takes the reins. “For the last season [in Adelaide] I directed in collaboration with Cam as rehearsal director. And I just felt I’ve made a commitment to an idea that we need to find a new collaborative model not just in the creation of art but in Australia in general,” says Cheetham. “It’s not a question of when it’s Indigenous-led art there are no non-Indigenous people involved. I think we need to find a way of working together that deepens the knowledge that non-Indigenous people have about the oldest culture in the world. It’s not always easy, though with Cam it has been. I’m just really committed to helping non-Indigenous people acquire enough knowledge so they can celebrate fully what Indigenous culture is. We took took Cam to the places where the story actually unfolded and he has met some of the elders. He has stood on the banks of the Dhungala or Murray River. He has heard the conversations of people who left Cummeragunja and the people who stayed. It’s that kind of really first-hand encounter that I wanted to be at the forefront of.”

Pecan Summer features some of Australia’s newest Indigenous opera performers including soprano Shauntai Batzke, baritone John Wayne Parsons as well as Jessica Hitchcock and Marcus Corowa, both of whom appeared in Opera Australia’s award-winning production of The Rabbits with its score by Kate Miller-Heidke. “Jessica Hitchcock went through our development programme from 2008 and it was when we were rehearsing at the Opera Australia premises in Melbourne ahead of our Adelaide season of Pecan Summer that OA saw Jess for the first time and asked if she could audition for The Rabbits,” says Cheetham. “We are really pleased that our artists are getting work near and far, because that’s the whole point of Short Black Opera to open up those pathways for Indigenous artists.”

Among the non-Indigenous performers, the production features very established singers including Barry Ryan, Rosamund Illing and Jonathan Welch, alongside exciting young singers such as Simon Lobelson who has just returned from singing in Europe, Eddie Muliaumaseali’l, Michael Butchard and Laura King. Welch and Illing play the Baptist Minister and his wife, characters based on Cheetham’s own adoptive parents who she says “were good people and who treated me very well.”

Sadly, although Cheetham did eventually meet her own biological mother Monica – which she describes as “just surreal” having grown up believing her mother had abandoned her in a cardboard box in a field – she passed away two weeks before Pecan Summer premiered in 2010. “But her brother Jimmy Little saw it. Monica was the youngest of seven and Jimmy was the oldest,” says Cheetham. “It was Jimmy that my grandparents carried off Cummeragunja in the story that we tell, which is extraordinary. Opera really can be that extraordinary.”

Pecan Summer has a one-off performance at the Sydney Opera House on September 12