In the 1970s, an upper-class Englishwoman and botanical illustrator, Vera Scarth-Johnson, settled in Cooktown, a coastal spot in far north Queensland at the mouth of the Endeavour River, where the town’s namesake, explorer James Cook, beached his ship for repairs some 200 years earlier.
The late Scarth-Johnson was an explorer too, and being a natural scientist would send floral specimens back to Britain, just as 18th century botanist Joseph Banks did during Cook’s journey.
She knew it was essential, however, to understand the Indigenous knowledge that underpinned the plants she painted, so she went to the local Guugu Yimithirr people, and struck up a friendship with an elder, the late Tulo Gordon, who would take her out on Country.
Vera and Tulo painted and yarned together, while the Guugu Yimithirr mob would come to refer to Vera as “wauru ngul-gu-rra-than”, or innermost beauty, says poet and librettist Jan Black, who has spent four years passionately researching the story.
“Tulo would go and stay at Vera’s place, and he’d play his guitar and they’d have a couple of glasses of red.”
Black has co-created the Cooktown Cantata: Songs of Place, Love and Identity, a vocal chamber work of 12 songs for three singers and six musicians – piano, cello, violin and bass – after her initial research into Scarth-Johnson’s painting unearthed this little-documented story of cross-cultural engagement. “After chatting with her friends and family, I realised there was this wonderful friendship,” she says.
The Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery Association originally commissioned the cantata to mark the 25oth anniversary of Cook’s 1770 landing in Cooktown. After COVID-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the work’s intended premiere at the Cooktown Festival in 2020, the cantata will finally be staged this June in Brisbane and then in Cooktown.
Derek Rosendale. Photograph supplied
Black knew it was incredibly important that she and composer Louise Denson collaborate on the cantata with Guugu Yimithirr composers and performers. “Even though I grew up in North Queensland [Atherton] and had a bit to do with the Indigenous people, I would never have assumed that I could write their stories or their music, so the collaboration was always essential right from the start.”
Notably, Derek Rosendale, a nephew of Tulo Gordon, contributed to the composition alongside singer-songwriter Dora Gibson. Rosendale, who has a light tenor, also plays his uncle Tulo in the performance, after permission was secured from the family to depict the late elder in the work.
Guugu Yimithirr language opens the cycle, which Gibson and her small ensemble will sing and speak.
How did the collaboration work, given Black and Denson live in Brisbane, Rosendale is in the mining town of Weipa, and Gibson calls Cooktown home? “Louise and I mainly came up to Cooktown, because we thought it was really important to work in their environment,” says Black.
“We would sit with the elders. It’s a very gentle collaboration: it’s not as though you sit down and say, ‘We’ve got to write this song’. You work in a way that is much more organic. It’s storytelling. Dora would go, ‘We could do this’ and we’d say, ‘That would be fantastic’, or Derek would say, ‘I’ve thought of a song’.
“It wasn’t structured in any way, just this general feeling of goodwill and excitement and interest that we had to work together to find the stories that would coalesce into Vera’s story.”
Jan Black, Margaret Schindler, Jeffrey Black and Louise Denson. Photograph © Ronan King-Rose
Black traces her own family history in northern Queensland to the late 19th century, including a gold-prospecting grandfather who spent time living with Indigenous people, and some unconfirmed, possible Indigenous ancestry through a great-grandfather who did not have a birth certificate.
United States-born, Brisbane-raised soprano Margaret Schindler will take the role of Vera, while Brisbane-born baritone Jeffrey Black – who is Jan’s husband – will perform as Joseph Banks, whose own interest in Indigenous knowledges ran counter to the British imperialism of the era.
How does the rich timbre of the baritone voice suit the role of Banks? “They always say that the baritones are the sexy ones of the operatic world, and Joseph Banks was a very good-looking young man and quite popular with the ladies,” says Jan.
Jan and Jeffrey Black spent some 30 years living in London. While she has delved passionately into Guugu Yimithirr culture, it is also true that she came to think of the British capital, where the couple’s two adult children still live and work, as home, and doesn’t rule out moving back there one day.
“Culturally, of course, one is so spoiled living in London, and you have that constancy of extraordinary performances,” she says. “The best singers, performers, artists still come through London.”
That said, Black has been endeavouring, so to speak, to wrap her tongue around the Guugu Yimithirr language.
“I’m getting there,” she says with a laugh. “It’s quite guttural, right back in the throat. As a singer, you pick up the musicality of the language.”