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June 27, 2014

Pecan Summer shines on Adelaide

Deborah Cheetham, writer, composer and a performer of opera Pecan Summer, is surely one of the only artists in Australia who views invitations to show her work overseas as second best to invitations to show in her home country.

  • Words: Farrin Foster

“It’s tempting to respond to the many invitations we’ve had for international audiences to see this opera,” she says. “But I’m really still very determined that Pecan Summer should be seen all around Australia.”


Pecan Summer is showing at Her Majesty’s Theatre from July 3 – 5.

Adelaide will become the fourth city to host the opera when it opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre on July 3. Deborah, though, is aiming for seasons in all capital cities because she believes the history the opera tells is too important to be missed by a domestic audience.

Pecan Summer relates the hence-to-forth little known story of the Cummeragunja walk off, in which hundreds of NSW’s Indigenous Yorta Yorta people – including Deborah’s Grandparents – left the mission in 1939 to protest against the inhumane conditions forced upon them.


Tracing the reverberations of this event across decades, Pecan Summer follows the impact it had on the lives of those involved, the generations that followed and Australian society at large.

“This defiant act contributed to the journey towards recognition in the constitution in 1967 and also led to the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008,” says Deborah. “It’s acts of defiance just like the one we tell in the story of Pecan Summer that have created the society we live in where people are becoming more aware.”

As well as being a tale of history, Pecan Summer makes some of its own – it is Australia’s first Indigenous opera and it is also one of very few Australian-written operas that has been performed for multiple seasons.

Its success has allowed Deborah to establish Short Black Opera Company – a not-for-profit outfit that develops Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander singers. Deborah has auditioned more than 170 people for places in the company and has a regular roster of 35 singers engaged.

When she sat down to write Pecan Summer – the first opera she has ever written – it was possibilities like these that motivated her.

“I wanted to encourage other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander singers to think about a career in opera,” she says. “I really believed there were fabulous voices out there that were just going unheard and having witnessed the incredible contribution that African American opera singers had made to opera, I completely believed that we could contribute that here in Australia and that’s proving to be true.”


In the almost five years since Pecan Summer’s 2010 debut, the performers of Short Black Opera Company have aged and developed – and Deborah says the work has grown too.

“The thing about it is we come together and we work really hard to explore new depths in the opera. We’re more skilled, these members of our company that we’ve developed have come along and this will certainly be the most mature season of the opera that we’ll be bringing to Adelaide.”

After Adelaide, while Deborah keeps one hand on the tiller of Pecan Summer and looks for new cities to steer it to, she will also be developing a new work – this time a commission that recounts the late 1800s resistance wars involving the Gunditjmara people. She is excited about the prospect, and the future, because “there’ll be even more to share with the Australian Public”.

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