City Recital Hall, Sydney
May 12, 2018

In Songs of Belonging, the cherished soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham emerged from stage left, accompanying herself on clapsticks to the world premiere of one of her own songs. Titled Yarran Ngarnga Yinga, it was the perfect opening to this rich evening of song and storytelling, with Cheetham bidding the audience welcome in one of the languages of Australia’s First Nations.

Deborah Cheetham

What followed was a smartly paced, very moving journey through Cheetham’s own life, where her Aboriginality was foregrounded down to the colour of her gown – the red of her dress was inspired by the dust of Central Australia and the Pilbara, she explained. With her partner Toni Lalich on piano, Cheetham’s program was a generous one, mixing operatic concert favourites with some of her own compositions for a truly satisfying evening.

Although something like Cilea’s Io son l’umile ancella can go for naught in a recital given by a less imaginative singer, Cheetham reinstated the aria’s central message with her sincere delivery, that of being a servant to the muses. Lovingly phrased and with judicious application of rubato, the morbidezza she found for the repeat of “un soffio è la mia voce” at aria’s end was spine-tinglingly lovely. She was well-supported by Lalich, who played with sensitivity and a wide range of colours all night.

Cheetham was joined onstage by tenor Matthew Reardon, a singer who has been supported by her own Short Black Opera Company, for the duet from Adriana Lecouvreur. Cilea’s writing seems to lie in a sweet spot for Cheetham, with the fullness of her middle voice getting to shine, while Reardon acquitted himself very well, showing off a good-sized lyric with an intriguing huskiness. He later returned for an impressive E Lucevan le stelle, with attention to fine dynamic control.

Prefacing her account of Vissi d’arte, Cheetham emphasised the importance of the arts in her own life, with a raised eyebrow at the recently announced budget cuts to the ABC. She also spoke movingly about the impact of seeing the African-American soprano Leona Mitchell sing the title role of Tosca, one of the few moments where Cheetham felt there was space for a black woman on the operatic stage. Like her Io son, Tosca’s credo “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” took on new significance in Cheetham’s hands, having talked about the centrality of song and other forms of artistic expression in Aboriginal lives.

In fact, this kind of new significance infused much of what was performed, with Puccini’s Senza Mama especially affecting in light of Cheetham’s own experience as a member of the Stolen Generation. Dedicated to both her biological and adoptive mothers, she rendered many in the audience audibly moved with a performance that was deeply felt.

Other highlights included the two selections from Cheetham’s opera Pecan Summer, with the Biami Creation Story a real stand out. Demonstrating both her gifts as a soprano and accomplished composer, Cheetham’s vividness of expression and commanding stage presence in voicing this narrative of creation had the audience spellbound. With Reardon, the duet Alice in 1964 allowed for an absorbing scena touching on grief and the ongoing effects of state mandated violence against our Indigenous peoples.

The only German song on the menu, Cheetham’s rendition of Strauss’ Allerseelen put one in mind of Elly Ameling, so simple and unaffected her singing. These qualities were also found in her performance of Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, usually lathed in sentiment but here done almost conversationally and all the more effective for it.

Cheetham then reunited with Reardon for the duet Vogliatemi bene from Madama Butterfly, surpassingly sweet. So too was her Un bel di, glowingly sung and with the same beautiful morbidezza found for the Cilea aria.

For her final programmed selection, Cheetham introduced Tarimi Nulay (another world premiere of one of her own compositions) as a reminder of how to know ourselves through art. A beautifully written piece that draws subtly on the cool modernism of Berg, the refrain of “ngyinigi berong” (“your way of belonging”) was like a benediction, rounding out the evening’s journey.