A community-minded audience supporting the splendid Indigenous group, Short Black Opera turned out for the opening night of modern opera Pecan Summer at the recently renovated Her Majesty’s Theatre. Injustice and tragedy are themes common to many operas and this one, supported by the Adelaide Art Orchestra, depicted plenty of both.
Deborah Cheetham AO is the music and libretto composer of Pecan Summer and the Artistic Director and Producer of Short Black Opera. Igniting passion for music that, for many may be unattainable, Cheetham has been providing life-changing opportunities for Indigenous singers and musicians since 2008. What better way to do this than write and stage your own opera?!
The Prelude opened proceedings as old woman Gomuka (Jennifer Williams), and Dunatpan, the giant mythical snake (Sermsah Bin Saad) depicted the story of the creation of Dhungala (the River Murray). Set in The Dreamtime, this marvellous tale from these storied people was told through dance and the off-stage chorus singing Murray River Dreaming in the ancient Yorta Yorta language.
The three Acts, sung in English, set from 1939 to 2008, exposed interlinked stories of dispossession from the Cummeragunja Mission walk-off, to the appalling chronicles of some of the Stolen Generation. A highlight scene featured Tiriki Onus as James, who told the scary story of Hairy Beka. He wasn’t kidding when he suggested the chorus might not sleep for a month… nothing frightens like the terrified screaming of a bevy of chorus beauties; well played.
Standout performances came from Jessica Hitchcock as young Alice, and Jonathon Welch as the Minister. Generally, diction was excellent, and all performances were heartfelt, if, at times, not quite solid gold. However, this is a show that provides opportunities and collaboration, and should be highly praised for this alone, if nothing else.
Some curiously chosen staging and awkward sets struggled at times to aid the unfolding drama, but the stories based on historical facts, were so extraordinary as to need little help to make a big impact. Perhaps due to opening night, some of the action was either anticipated or stilted, but this was offset by the consistent enthusiasm of the chorus, and the occasions of good humour. Whilst not performed note-perfect, this modern opera is one of few (if any?) to include the word “dickhead”.
Like many good tragedies (oxymoron intended), the effectiveness is in the ending. The finale of Pecan Summer could not possibly have delivered the liberation desired, but the work Deborah Cheetham and Short Black Opera are doing, just might.
Reviewed by Emily Morris
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide
Season: 3 – 5 July 2014
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
Tickets: $25 – $85
Bookings: Book online through the Adelaide Festival Centre website or phone BASS on 131 246