On the Couch with Prof Deborah Cheetham AO

Victorian-Opera-Prof-Deborah-Cheetham-AO-photo-by-Hilary-WalkerWho is Prof Deborah Cheetham AO?
Prof Deborah Cheetham AO describes herself as a 21st century urban woman who is Yorta Yorta by birth, stolen generation by government policy, soprano by diligence, composer by necessity and lesbian by practice. Artistic Director of Short Black Opera, partner of Toni Lalich OAM and co-parent of fur babies Gracie Mae and Lotte Lou.

What would you do differently from what you do now?
I would do exactly what I am doing now but in a Covid free world.

Who inspires you and why?
I am so fortunate to belong to a number of amazing communities. First Nations, LGBTQI and the Arts Community. All three driven by the kind of resilience so necessary in these challenging times. The qualities of kindness and diligence are attractive and inspirational in equal measure and I find them in each of these communities and particularly in my partner in music and life, Toni Lalich.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
I would support more women to lead and make sure Arts education is at the heart of their strategy for developing a mature nation which knows and understands itself on the deepest possible level. I would see empathetic leadership capable of critical thought fill the current vacuum in Australia so that we might understand and realize our unique role in the world.

I am working to restore the Arts to the centre of our ways of knowing and being. The Arts are greatly neglected and undervalued by current leadership in Australia. First Nations Australian’s owe much of their resilience and strength to the longest continuing arts practice in the world. All knowledge of science and humanity has been acquired and passed on via the arts longer than any other method.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
In Australia – the beach. I need to be by the ocean. My grandfather was a salt-water man (Yuin nation). The ocean calls to me. I am happiest there. When I am on a composing retreat, I head to Gunditjmara country for the rugged aural demands of Bass Strait as the waves crash onto the volcanic shore. Both Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace and Parrwang Lifts the Sky were, in part, created there. The rest of the world? Salerno, Amalfi Coast, and France in particular Paris and the Champagne region.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
Toni and I have families who mostly live in WA and NSW. When they visit it is often to see a Short Black Opera production or performance. We are no strangers to the Arts Centre of course but in Melbourne we are spoilt for choice. For me, the Australian Tapestry Workshop and the Melbourne Recital Centre are a must see! We love the Yarra Valley with its cellar doors and world class local produce and are also happy to pop into Mario’s in Fitzroy for a late breakfast or Stomping Ground in Collingwood for twice cooked lamb and a lunchtime ale.

What are you currently reading?
If I’m to be completely honest? Emails. The pleasure of reading for recreation is a distant memory at the moment as Short Black Opera pivots once again in response to lockdown measures. In an endeavor to remedy this situation, I have embarked on the task of making an audio book recording of my favourite Victor Hugo novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. I try to record a few pages each evening before retiring.

What are you currently listening to?
Rachmaninov Symphony No 2. After an exquisite performance by the MSO, in between lockdowns, this work surges through my mind without need of headphones or replay device. That is the power of live performance, when it reaches the absolute pinnacle of expression, as that performance by the MSO did, the experience enters into the very fibers of your being. It remains with you.

It is in this way the Arts have the power to bind together the fabric of society equally for those who have participated and for those who have never entered a concert hall or theatre. There is a quality of human spirit made possible by the arts and in shapes our society for the better. Emotional maturity, empathy and critical thought are all the byproducts of elevated artistic pursuit.

Happiness is?
To know my belonging in all its complexity and to know love.

What does the future hold for you?
I cannot recall a time in my life when the future seemed so uncertain and yet in some strange way the Covid factor has provided a kind of certainty. I am certain that I will need to remain resilient. I have a number of exciting commissions to complete in the next 12 months including large scale works for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I will also publish a new volume of Dhungala Choral Connection Songs, this time in the language of Yorta Yorta Grandmother. I have been invited to direct a play and I will continue to perform any opportunity I have.

I can honestly say I have never taken for granted my time on stage, but these past 18 months have proven to me just how much I need to communicate directly with an audience. There simply is no replacement for live performance. It is the essence of community and being for me.

Deborah is the Composer and Librettist of Parrwang Lifts the Sky – which is available to view on the Victorian Opera website via digital access until 19 December 2021. For more information, visit: www.victorianopera.com.au for details.

Image: Prof Deborah Cheetham AO – photo by Hilary Walker