Deborah Cheetham says it’s time for the classical music industry to trust First Nations to lead

Opera music

Yorta Yorta Soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham has been named the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Australian Women in Music Awards.

AWMA jurors described Cheetham as a trailblazer whose voice spoke much more than music, forging a strong path to reconciliation in Australia.

Cheetham has established a varied career as a composer, performer, artistic director and lawyer.

After graduating from the Sydney Conservatory of Music, Cheetham rose to prominence as an operatic soprano, performing across Australia and overseas, including at the 2000 Summer Olympics and the World Cup. Rugby World of 2003.

Cheetham’s compositional work has been in high demand since premiering his first full-scale production Pecan Summer in 2010, with numerous commissions from major ensembles such as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australian String Quartet and the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra.

This latest accolade adds to a scintillating assemblage, including his 2014 nomination to the Order of Australia’s Offering, the 2019 Melbourne Prize for Music, Limelight Magazine’s 2019 Artist of the Year and a previous AWMA – the Auriel Andrew Memorial Award in 2018. .

“This event not only celebrated the most innovative, hardworking and influential women in Australian music, it was also an opportunity to further amplify the voices of First Nations women, who have historically been underappreciated and underestimated. -represented,” the Premier of Queensland said. Annastacia Palaszczuk said accepting the award on behalf of Cheetham.

First Nations participation in classical music continues to stagnate behind other artistic disciplines – a problem that Cheetham has worked to address.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure the next generation of musicians don’t have to push as hard as I had to,” Cheetham said.

“Things are moving forward, but it’s still very slow.”

In 2019, Cheetham founded Short Black Opera, a company specializing in training and providing performance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists.

Cheetham said it was the achievement she was most proud of.

“We know the most powerful way to convey any type of idea, message or knowledge is through the arts,” she said.

“So where we’ve given singers and musicians the opportunity to tell their stories, where we’ve put the spotlight on them, we know they’re helping to do the work that really builds a more cohesive society more generally.”

An offshoot of Short Black Opera, the Dutala Ensemble is Cheetham’s latest project, aiming to eventually populate Australian state orchestras with First Nations musicians by offering mentorship to young instrumentalists.

The band is led by musician Noongar Aaron Wyatt, who in February became the first Indigenous person to conduct an Australian state orchestra.

And yet, with these major advances, Cheetham said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“The next steps also need to be taken, and that is in giving us our own voice and giving First Nations the leadership role,” she said.

“First Nations people, we are three percent of the population. We need everyone to step up and do the real work.

“And that will mean appointing First Nations people to big business.

“Because until we do, we cannot adequately shape the fabric of society in the way we need to.”

Cheetham said Indigenous peoples have waited long enough for change.

“Now is the time to empower the whole of Australia by celebrating Indigenous leadership in the arts,” she said.

“We know how central the arts are to ways of knowing and being, and that’s just something we absolutely need to commit to in Australia right now.”