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Deborah Cheetham's Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address.

Deborah Cheetham, Yorta Yorta woman, soprano, composer and educator has been a leader and pioneer in the Australian arts landscape for more than 25 years.

In 2009, Deborah Cheetham established Short Black Opera as a national not-for-profit opera company devoted to the development of Indigenous singers. The following year she produced the premiere of her first opera Pecan Summer. This landmark work was Australia's first Indigenous opera and has been a vehicle for the development of a new generation of Indigenous opera singers.

In the 2014 Queen's Birthday Honours List, Cheetham 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 March 2015 she was inducted onto the Honour Roll of Women in Victoria and in April 2018 received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia for her pioneering work and achievements in the music. 

In 2019, Deborah Cheetham received the Merlyn Myer Prize to create a new work for the Melbourne based ensemble Syzygy Ensemble and recently was awarded the Melbourne Prize for Music.

Deborah gave the 2019 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address at Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall - an annual forum for ideas relating to the creation and performance of Australian music. 

Find excerpts from her inspiring address below.


It is a great honour to be here with you this evening in this beautiful venue I've loved this venue since the first pylon went into the ground, and it's a great honour to be accepting a role in the board of the MRC — and that was just announced last week. This is the 21st annual Peggy Glanville Hicks Address. When I stand on this country I know I have the ancestors and elders of the Boon Wurrung and their very close neighbours the Wurundjeri to thank for the strength that I feel - the strength that I can draw upon. For 70 thousand years or more the Kulin nations have sung and danced and painted their culture on this land. This land has a long memory
When the Old Police Hospital, which is now one of the admin buildings of the University of Melbourne, when that was first built, the language of the Boon Wurrung could still be heard, here, on this land. It's worth remembering that connection.

In all the world — the entire world — Australia alone can lay claim to the longest continuing cultures. We live each day drawing energy from a land which has been nurtured by the traditional owners for more than 2000 generations. And although we celebrate this more today than in any other time since our shared history began there is little doubt in my mind that there is still a great deal of progress to be made.

In preparing for this evening I started to think about the many public addresses I have given during my career. A decade ago I spoke about the lack of opportunity for Indigenous opera singers, the need for new lyrics for our national anthem and of the luxury of failure - an experience at the time not often afforded to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. If you failed personally you failed on behalf of every Aboriginal person. Sadly this equation did not operate in the reverse. A success made you out-of-the-ordinary and perhaps that was so, on occasion. However most of the time I found myself to be exercising a kind of life practice that was not merely the result of education or nurturing but part of my DNA and extends me to this very day well beyond the hybrid of humanity you see before you.

But as I thought about those many public addresses, it wasn't surprising that a common theme has remained throughout the 30 years of my career in the art sector and that is the power and necessity of music and the role it plays in shaping and sustaining communities. Music is my earliest memory has always been for me a way of knowing the world and making sense of everything in it.   You know, I say, that it's a common theme, the power and necessity of music. I was talking with members of the AMC, in particular John [Davis], and I wanted to acknowledge you and the work of the AMC, and Genevieve [Lacey], the chair of our board, the board that I'm proud to serve, and I was talking about the kinds of addresses that I have given. I used to always write my speeches, I was taught well, in high school, that you wrote those speeches down, and you collated them, and kept them, and I have, for a very long time. But there became a point in my life where I had to stop writing those speeches down. Because, on the way to an event, something would happen that I simply could not ignore. That I simply needed to respond to. And it happened this evening.

Continue reading and listen to the address in full via the Australian Music Centre

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