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Deborah Cheetham AO

A pioneer in the Australian arts landscape.

Deborah Cheetham

Deborah Cheetham is a proud Yorta Yorta woman, the Artistic Director of Australia’s national Indigenous opera company Short Black Opera Company, soprano, composer and academic. Deborah has been a leader in the Australian arts landscape for more than 25 years. She has pioneered the Australian arts landscape with her classical music and passion to highlight the strength and importance of Aboriginal history through her art and music. She is inspired to showcase Aboriginal culture and perspectives in order to provide a point of connection to the longest continuing culture for the broader non-Aboriginal community.

Deborah is a member of the Stolen Generations and has spent the last 30 years finding her way back to her grandmother’s Country, Yorta Yorta Country. Deborah was born on Yuin Country in Nowra, New South Wales but grew up with her adopted family in the southern suburbs of Sydney. She graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music with Bachelor of Music Education Degree.

Deborah earned the opportunity to study in New York at the Metropolitan Opera and Julliard School of Music. Upon returning to Australia, Deborah produced her first major work, the critically acclaimed one woman play White Baptist Abba Fan and toured extensively throughout Australia in 1998. White Baptist Abba Fan also toured internationally, giving sell-out performances at The Edge (New Zealand), Christchurch Arts Festival (New Zealand), Zürcher Theater Spektakel (Switzerland), Manchester International Festival and the Barbican Centre (United Kingdom).

In 2000, Deborah was commissioned to write and perform an original composition in the language of the Gadigal people. Dali Mana Gamarada, was performed as the Welcome to Country for the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

In 2009, together with her partner Toni Lalich OAM, Deborah established Melbourne-based Short Black Opera Company, a national not-for-profit devoted to the development of Indigenous singers. Through her role as Artistic Director of Short Black Opera, Deborah has increased Indigenous representation in the world of classical vocal music. At the same time, she established the Dhungala Children’s Choir, Australia’s peak Aboriginal-led children’s choral program.

Deborah highlights Indigenous excellence and achievement, by presenting Indigenous cultures through the powerful medium of opera as well as composing new works incorporating Aboriginal languages from around Victoria and across Australia. Deborah has spent over 20 years developing her compositional voice. During that time she has specialised in coupling the beauty and diversity of our Indigenous languages with the power and intensity of classical music.

In 2010, she produced Australia’s first Aboriginal opera, Pecan Summer, which has been performed widely and has changed the face of opera in Australia forever.

In 2014’s Queens Birthday Honours List, Deborah was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), for distinguished service to the performing arts as an opera singer, composer and artistic director, to the development of Indigenous artists, and to innovation in performance. In addition, she was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2015.

In 2016, the Sydney Opera House production of Pecan Summer received a total of nine Broadway World Awards. This groundbreaking work has been a vehicle for the development of a new generation of Indigenous opera singers. In addition to this, Deborah partnered with the Melba Opera Trust to establish the Harold Blair Indigenous Opera Fellowship, which supports the development of an Indigenous classical singer to ensure access to further  career opportunities.

In 2018, Deborah was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia and was named the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award Recipient for 2019.Deborah Cheetham’s latest work, Eumeralla, A War Requiem for Peace, sung entirely in the Gunditjmara dialects, was created in partnership with Gunditjmara leadership, including language custodian Vicki Couzens and Elder Uncle Ken Saunders. This work premiered to sold-out audiences for both the on-Country premiere in 2018 and the symphonic premiere with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in June 2019. In 2020, Eumeralla, A War Requiem for  Peace will be performed in Perth with the West Australian   Symphony Orchestra.

Deborah Cheetham has been named the 2020 Composer-in-Residence for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Her work with the Orchestra and our Indigenous languages led to a commission to compose the music for an Acknowledgement to Country that will be played before each and every concert given by the MSO. For this project, Deborah had the privilege of working with no fewer than 11 ancient languages from around the State of Victoria, including the language of her late Grandmother, Yorta Yorta woman Frances McGee.

Deborah’s achievements have been recognised through various awards, including a fellowship from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, an Aurial Andrews Memorial Award at the inaugural Australian Women in Music Awards, and the Merlyn Myer Prize for composition and life membership of the Melbourne Recital Centre. Deborah has served on many boards, including Yorta Yorta Traditional Owner Land Management Board, National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, Kaiela Institute, Parks Victoria, the Australian Music Centre and the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Deborah has used her work as a powerful platform to promote a greater understanding of Aboriginal history in Australia. As a result, her work has also ensured that Australia’s shared history is known and understood. She has used the powerful medium of classical music as a vehicle for language regeneration and preservation, ensuring the voice of Aboriginal Australia is heard in concert halls and theatres around the country and internationally.

“Music is my way of knowing the world and giving meaning to everything in it. As a performer, composer, artistic director, producer and educator I have worked to build pathways for Indigenous artists and new audiences alike. The work continues while there are still more barriers to break through. I draw on the strength of my ancestors every day and thank them for the song that lives in me.”