Yorta Yorta soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham has been named the recipient of this year’s lifetime achievement award at the annual Australian Women in Music Awards.

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

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

After graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Cheetham gained notoriety as an operatic soprano, performing variously across Australia and abroad, including at the 2000 Summer Olympics and the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Cheetham’s compositional work has been in high demand ever since the 2010 premiere of her first large-scale production Pecan Summer, with commissions abounding from major ensembles including the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australia String Quartet and West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

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

“Not only has this event celebrated the most innovative, hard-working and influential women in Australian music, it’s been an opportunity to further amplify the voices of First Nations women, who have historically been under-valued and under-represented,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said while accepting the award on Cheetham’s behalf.

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

“We need to do as much as we can to make sure that the next generation of musicians do not have to push as hard as I’ve had to,” Cheetham said.

“Things are moving along, but it’s still really slow.”

In 2009, Cheetham founded Short Black Opera, a company specialised to train and provide performance opportunities to Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists.

Cheetham said this was the achievement of which she was most proud.

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

“So where we’ve provided opportunities to singers and musicians to tell their stories, where we’ve shone a light on them, we know that they are helping to do the work that really builds a more cohesive society more generally.”

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

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

And yet, with these major strides forward, Cheetham said there was still much work to be done.

“The next steps also need to be taken, and that is in entrusting us with our own voice and entrusting First Nations people to lead,” she said.

“First Nations people, we’re three percent of the population. We need everyone else to commit and to do the real work.

“And that will mean appointing First Nations people to major companies.

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

Cheetham said Indigenous people had waited long enough for change.

“The time is now 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 this is just something we absolutely need to commit to in Australia right now.”

  • Story by Alex Allan