OUTcast S3, Ep 4 • 16 April 2023 • 59:40
Rosie 00:00:07 Welcome to OUTcast, the podcast where we hear coming out stories from famous faces and brilliant LGBTQ+ people working hard behind the scenes from all backgrounds and from all corners of the globe.
On this podcast, we discover life stories, and in doing so, we dissect some of the most pressing issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community today. We hope we can support and inspire you, our listeners, whether you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community out or not, or an ally listening to learn more. I’m Rosie Pentreath, your host, and I’ve shared my coming out story in writing and on various panels, and I know firsthand the value of talking through my experiences. Now, I’m giving people from all corners of life and from all backgrounds the same opportunity. You may have listened to other episodes before, and if you have, thank you for coming back, or you may be here for the first time because of our guest welcome. You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT, and you can find us online at outastpod.com. Thank you for listening.
Rosie 00:01:28 Today, I’m meeting opera singer, composer, playwright, and educator, Deborah Cheethan Fraillon. Debra has been a leader and a pioneer in the Australian arts landscape for more than 25 years, and this intersects with her being an LGBTQ+ advocate. In 2009, she established Short Black Opera as a national not-for-profit opera company devoted to the development of indigenous singers, and she’s performed all over the world.
In the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours list, Deborah was appointed as an officer of the order of Australia 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. A proud Yorta Yorta woman, she’s a member of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of indigenous Australians, and her experience of coming out as a lesbian intersects with her experience of that deeply traumatic policy, as well as her experience of growing up with a white Baptist family.
She performed at the Live & Proud Sydney World Pride Opening Concert and other World Pride events, including Blak and Deadly at the Sydney Opera House in 2023. And she’s just stepped into the role of Elizabeth Todd Chair of Vocal studies at Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Deborah, you describe yourself as a 21st-century urban woman who’s Yorta Yorta by birth, stolen generation by government policy, soprano by diligence, composer by necessity, and lesbian by practice.
Deborah 00:03:00 Yes. Yes. I decided that that had to be my bio because you get to a certain point – and everybody will arrive at this point – you know, different times in their life. But I got to a certain point where it was my least favourite thing to do, updating the bio, you know, what things needed to stay in, what things were the most significant, what do I leave out? And I felt like I needed to distill the information about me down to these critical points. And at the time, I remember it was the occasion of the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Oration, and I was giving this oration, and finally I’d got to the point where I felt I had to just narrow it down to these critical points. And I said to Genevieve Lacey, who was introducing me, and I said this is what it is, she was totally comfortable with that.
Deborah 00:04:04 And she said, lesbian by practice hey? And I said, absolutely. You know, I’m a career lesbian, and it’s been the practice of a lifetime. I hope that I’m quite good at it now, but I wanted to put that there because I’ve, I really felt that even now, even the 21st Century, there are still places, certainly many places in the world, but there are still places in Australia where you will be persecuted on the basis of your sexuality. And I want to put that right out there and say, “okay, you need to know this about me. If you’re overlooking it, or you, you, you prefer to define me by, you know, whatever is important to, you know, what is important to me.” And that’s why I put it last in that list.
Rosie 00:05:03 Yeah. I really love that you’ve got a certain position in society and that you are well known. It has a power of saying it for that reason, but I also like that, that you say it because that’s what’s important to you.
Deborah 00:05:16 Absolutely. I’ve seen enough of the world through the eyes of my students. You know, I’ve been a teacher for a very long time. It’s perhaps something that people don’t know about me, that I started life as actually, as a secondary, my, my career as a secondary school music teacher, you know, that was back in the, the late eighties. And across my career as a teacher, there’ve been many, many eventful moments. But the things that stand out to me are the students who’ve, you know, in later years contacted me and told me of their struggles when at school, when they felt they weren’t being accepted, and how it helped them to know that there was a teacher who had navigated life successfully. I mean, it wasn’t always smooth. And, and some of those, some of those journeys through the private school system of New South Wales have had their impact. But what’s important is if you do have a voice that is being heard at a certain time, then you need to represent, it’s really important to represent and never think that the struggle is over. It’s always new for someone. It’s always someone’s first time to come out to their parents. You know, the universal acceptance of the queer community is a ways off. So we need to represent
Rosie 00:06:57 Yeah. And we all get so used to being out, but you are right. Being out and coming out is so new for someone right now, and then tomorrow, and then the next day, et cetera.
Deborah 00:07:07 Many in our community are only too aware of that and doing everything they can, and to raise awareness and, and build support networks, and make sure that, that people do not feel alone or isolated in their, in their journey to connect with their own identity. For me, I think those years as a teacher and remaining connected to, you know, generations that are younger than myself, there are all sorts of incredible benefits to that. I think it keeps you young, it forces you to stay relevant if you possibly can keep up. But for me, it also was a constant reminder that the struggles that I faced someone else is facing those now. And if I can say, look, here I am, albeit there are a number of scars that I’ve accumulated along the way, but here I am and I see you.
Rosie 00:08:09 Yeah, absolutely. As a side note, I love that you were with Jen Lacey when you kind of came up with that description. So I’ve got the privilege of working with her on a project at the moment, and, and she’s just wonderful. Anyway, that’s a a side note.
Deborah 00:08:24 Yeah. Is an exceptional human being. Credible musician. Yeah.
Rosie 00:08:28 Yeah, she’s amazing. Well, let’s go back to where, you know, where you got those scars from – before you got those scars, potentially. Can you take me back to when you first came out, or, or first started to come out? Obviously, there’s not always just one coming out. It’s not a moment that we shared and then just move on from.
Deborah 00:08:46 Oh, for sure. You’re so right there, Rosie. Coming out is a lifelong process. It does get much easier, but it never actually goes away because there is always the assumption that the central society is white heterosexual society, and that everybody else orbits around that. So I had many different kinds of coming out, coming out as a Yorta Yorta woman, coming out as an opera singer, coming out as a lesbian. I’ve always known that I was attracted to women. And long before I had even encountered the term lesbian, I was growing up with my adopted family. They were very strict Baptists. I don’t think there’s any other kind of Baptist, only strict ones. So the idea of any kind of sexuality outside of the Heteronormal, and not even very interesting. Can I say, look, apologies to Baptists who’ll be listening to this, but you’ve gotta understand, I grew up in the Baptist church in the sixties and seventies and eighties, so it might be different today.
Deborah 00:10:06 I don’t know. I’m no longer a member of the Baptist Church, but back then, back then, yeah, it was pretty strict. It just was not talked about or explored, or explained to me. But I knew from a very early age that I was attracted to women and only to women. In my teenage years, I, you know, had a couple of boyfriends that were not so much about a real, an intense attraction, but being like-minded in some way. For instance, I used to ride a motorbike, and there was one other boy at the neighbouring school who had a motorbike. We were both in a musical together, Fiddler on the Roof, it was, and he had a motorbike. I had a motorbike. And so it just seemed natural that we should, you know, he was really, he was a really lovely guy, you know, but I knew then I couldn’t offer him what he was looking for.
Deborah 00:11:07 It wasn’t what I was interested in. I went to an all girls school. I’d had several great crushes and one particular love that was unrequited. But I knew that I, this is what I wanted. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know how I would go about that because I was still living in that very cloistered and closeted community, their closet, not mine. I came out, I guess, I guess I was outed actually, my first real girlfriend and I went on a trip to Northern New South Wales and a couple from the church that I still belong to at that stage. They got wind that I was traveling Northern New South Wales, and they were too. And they said, come and stay with us. Oh, no, what could possibly go wrong? So, you know, they said, oh, we’ve only got one bed. You don’t mind sharing with your girlfriend in inverted com?
Deborah 00:12:07 I said no. How did you know? And yeah, basically they caught us in the act. So that didn’t go down well. Let’s just say in this church that I’d grown up in my whole life, I held several positions of responsibility within the church, and that was all stripped away. Hmm. It took me, Rosie, it took me a long time to recover from that. That early trauma was one that just struck at the heart of my identity. I’d pieced together this identity. In fact, I wrote a play about it: White Baptist Abba Fan, and that play, which toured from about 1995, was all about this identity that pieced together for myself, you know, adopted. I hadn’t realised I was stolen generation; a Baptist, I hadn’t figured out how to be a lesbian or, or how that would play out. You know, all these, this transition from one identity that I pieced together that just did not fit me at all.
Deborah 00:13:10 It’s like trying on your favourite jeans at the end of winter. Like, it’s just not gonna fit. Come on. Yeah. Yeah. You know, it’s worse than that. It’s like walking around in shoes that are too small for you. It’s, it’s damaging. Yeah. So I, you know, when I was outed and I was asked to resign my membership from that, from the church, it was really incredibly traumatic because my identity was so embedded in that place. It was a big, it was a large community. And I, you know, I was the director of music at that church, and it was an important role to me. I had just finished my degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and I was, you know, venturing out and becoming a high school music teacher. And, you know, it was like all these roads converged all at once.
Deborah 00:14:05 And I guess I was forced into a situation where I guess I was forced by the actions of others to examine what my identity had been up to that point in a way that I think we all are in our twenties, we’re trying to find the adult versions of ourselves, or at least we were then. I think it happens even earlier now, but I feel like it was a catalyst for me to start to examine all sorts of things. And, you know, my identity was quite complicated, even so, not just as a lesbian, but also as a y de yada woman who was yet to connect to that, that essential part of her being
Rosie 00:15:11 Let’s talk about that. You’re a Yorta Yorta woman. You’ve been open about the factual part of the country’s stolen generation, even if you didn’t always know that. I’m gonna talk a bit about the policy for our listeners who might not know, but obviously I can’t condense it into two sentences actually, but I’m, I’m gonna force it into two. Yeah. Colonial Australia had a policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their families and placing them with white settler families. Yeah. But it was deeply painful. Do you mind telling us a bit about what happened to you, what your story was, or at least what you’ve been able to piece together?
Deborah 00:15:47 Well, fortunately I’ve been able to piece it all together, Rosie, but that took a long time. Can I say, so as a young child growing up in an all white family and essentially a, a very white community, there was not a lot of diversity in the 1970s southern suburbs of Sydney where I grew up. I’d been told by my adopted parents that, that I was an adopted aboriginal. That was a title that I always held. And the reason they’d adopted me was because they had been told that my aboriginal mother had abandoned me in a cardboard box. She’d placed me and in a field, so essentially left to die. Really, when you’re old enough to sort of piece that story together, you think she left me in a cardboard box in a field. Like what was she thinking? Who would find me in that field?
Deborah 00:16:48 You know? So you start to think, she left me there to die. Is that what they’re telling me? That’s what they’d been told. And then as I, you know, progressed through my Bible study lessons at the Baptist Church, I realised it wasn’t particularly original story. It kind of sounded a little, but a little bit like Moses in the bulrushes. But anyway, I put that aside and I just made up my own reality in my head that my aboriginal mother must have died. You know I sort of killed her off in my imagination because I couldn’t, I don’t think as a teenager deal with the idea that my, my birth mother had abandoned me, even though that’s what I was told.
Deborah 00:17:38 And it wasn’t until my twenties that I actually learned the truth that I was a member of the stolen generations. And you’ve gotta understand Rosie, and for listeners who are just coming to understand this, this brutal policy of, basically it’s kind of genocide. If you’re gonna take away the children of one group of society, it’s a, it’s a kind of genocide. You gotta understand that. For many years in my life, up until, gosh, up until my thirties, the term stolen generation wasn’t one that people were familiar with at all. That story was yet to be told. And then when it was told, just like the genocide of, of the murdered Jews of Europe, and the murdered gays and lesbians and others of Europe at the hands of the Nazis, when that story was told, there were people who denied it.
Rosie 00:18:35 Yeah, yeah.
Deborah 00:18:37 You know, indigenous Australians have faced down their own Holocaust, and there were Holocaust deniers in this country who denied that the children were taken, who denied the murders and the massacres. Now, certain measures that governments have taken in truth telling over the last 20 years, have helped to almost silence those voices, but they’ll never be entirely silenced. There are still people that would deny that these things would happen or, or diminish them in some way, or even worse, blame the victims. When I did finally meet members of my Aboriginal family, I had no capacity to take on the information that I had been taken from my mother. This was something that I was not prepared for. I had no notion that that could even be a thing. I’d grown up being told that I’d been abandoned. I’d accepted that I’d gone through my own alternate reality and, and made up story in my teenage years as I explained, just so I could get through it. And then finally, I actually met my aboriginal mother, Monica, we had, oh, just over 15 years together to get to know one another, to find a way into a relationship before, sadly, she passed away at the age of just 64. But it helped me on my path to actually understand who on earth I am, because without meeting her, without finding out the story of the rest of my family, I, I would just be a puzzle that was not assembled properly.
Deborah 00:20:33 Some days I feel like I probably still am, I dunno, you’d have to ask my wife!
Rosie 00:20:39 Yeah, that’s the thing. How does it feel to just like, not know, like you were saying, you were telling stories a certain ages to cope with it, I suppose, but Yeah, I can’t even imagine.
Deborah 00:20:50 For me, I was with a family, right? So I was with my adopted family from three weeks of age. So actually what had really happened was when my aboriginal mother, Monica, fell pregnant with me, she was married to the man who is essentially my father. But not, not in any kind of proactive way, you understand it. No, I think sperm donor is, is much more accurate. But they were in a relationship, he was not an aboriginal man. And his family were completely against his marriage to an aboriginal woman, and had expressed this time and time again. But when, when my mother fell pregnant with me, that was the last straw. And basically they exerted so much pressure on the relationship that he left my mother, Monica, when she was seven months pregnant with me. Now, this was 1964, and aboriginal people had virtually no rights.
Deborah 00:22:01 And aboriginal women, absolutely no rights, no citizenship in Australia, not counted in the census as human beings. We were almost stateless, really. And so Monica, as a single mother, had nothing and nowhere to go. And she had to work. So she entrusted me to the care of a woman who’d been a formerly, had been a, a officer in the Salvation Army, actually. And whilst my mother, Monica was at work one day, just as a labourer, picking beans, she was doing seasonal work whilst she was in, you know, in the fields picking beans. This former major in the Major Townsend was her name. She gave me to the Cheetham family. And when Monica came home from work that day: “where is my baby?” “She’s gone. And I’m not telling you where she’s gone, because she’s much better off than being with you.” Hmm. Now, this was a story of countless aboriginal mothers that, and worse, many children were older when they were taken and not sent to families that loved them and cared for them as I had, but sent to orphanages.
Deborah 00:23:28 These are children who had families, siblings, a mother and a father. And they were taken, sent to orphanages like Parramatta Girls’ Home, or Kinsella boys’ home, Cootamundra Girls’ Home, and basically taught how to be domestic servants. And went into domestic service, unpaid domestic service. Now, in the United States, they called that slavery in Australia, we just sanitised that and called it domestic service. So things could have been even worse for me, but they couldn’t have been worse for my mother, Monica, I was taken from her, and there was no way she could get me back. She had no rights. So that is something that when I discovered the truth of that part of my story, that set me on another journey to make sense of that.
Rosie 00:24:18 Yeah. It’s absolutely traumatic and awful. There’s no words to, there’s no words for that. What, maybe we shouldn’t even give it air, but what did Australia claim to be trying to achieve with this policy?
Deborah 00:24:36 No, that’s a great question. And it’s an important one. I think that we are, we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t understand it. So I don’t mind giving it air at all, Rosie. I think it’s the right question to ask. What were they trying to do? There was a school of thought that, that aboriginal race would die out within a couple of generations. And that if those children of mixed heritage, like myself, a white father, a black mother, if they could be educated out of being Aboriginal, if they could be taken away from their communities, prevented from learning their culture, prevented from learning their language, and given only a Western education, then you would educate those children out of being Aboriginal. And within a couple of generations, there would be no Aboriginal people, because who wants to deal with the genocide that was enacted upon Aboriginal Australia, who wants to deal with the reckoning that we are now understanding.
Deborah 00:25:40 Nobody wanted to, they wanted to get away with the notion that it was the lucky country and people had just come here and made good after, you know, their long and difficult journeys. As our, our recently ousted Prime Minister put it, you know, it was hard for the people who came on the first fleet. It was a long way and a difficult and dangerous journey. Okay, well, who invited you? You know? Yeah. Your choice. We’re a nation that still is coming to terms with really critical matters that form our nationhood, that are deeply embedded in the psyche of this nation. The things that hold us back, the things that make us view ourselves in terms of only caricature, really so often this, this comes from the, well, what I feel is the missed opportunity, right at the beginning of colonisation, if there was ever the opportunity. But right at the beginning of that process, when the British came and decided to stay, there could have been a relationship, there could have been a reciprocal relationship built, but they didn’t want that. They wanted to colonise and to own and to dispossess. And so it’d be much easier if there were no Aboriginal people left to tell that story. So the idea was to educate Aboriginal people out of being Aboriginal.
Rosie 00:27:08 God it’s awful. It’s so sinister.
Deborah 00:27:10 It is sinister. And, and the British was so, and others, but the British particularly was so practiced at it across the world. And we celebrated in a sports carnival every few years called the Commonwealth Games. And they’re coming back again. I wonder what Australia actually is thinking where it goes, oh, we’re part of the Commonwealth. What do you think that means? Yeah, the wealth didn’t flow to us. It flowed to Great Britain. There are loads of people now who realise that this is a part of our history. We don’t wanna be proud of. And actually we’re, look, we are viewing with great interest to see how these so-called colonised countries are dealing with their past in the present. How are they dealing with that? And how are they building a kind of future that is, is going to be based on self-determination and truth? And, and I think Australia’s really struggled with that for a long time.
Rosie 00:28:16 There is starting to be like a kind of a shift in awareness and a reckoning.
Deborah 00:28:21 All I can do in my, my practice as a musician for many years as a soprano and a performer, and now probably I guess a, a better chance to have a, having a lasting impact, I hope as a composer, is to help people to understand what the truth was is and how to get through it. Because I had to navigate that myself. What I’m trying to do, my sort of remit for life is to help other Australians navigate that course as well. Yeah. It’s not just as simple as finding something out. It’s about letting go of something you thought was true.
Rosie 00:29:08 Yeah, that’s a really good point. That’s, that’s really true. That would change a lot.
Deborah 00:29:15 Yeah. And at times in Australia, our leaders have sought to make Australians fearful. We’re gonna see it right now. Hmm. We’re gonna see it the next six months or so as we’ve moved towards a referendum. Yeah, yeah. About whether there should be a voice to parliament. And the coalition, the conservative right wing coalition, the leader of that party has said, we’re gonna vote ‘no’. And so it begins, you know, for me, this will be the third kind of public opinion poll or referendum that I’ve lived through that has directly affected my status as a human being in this country. In 1967, the referendum to decide whether or not to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the census. Prior to that we were not counted or included which base basically, you know, gave us the status of being not human. Then of course, the one we all live through the postal vote to say whether, whether I could marry my wife. And now this one, you know, should, should Aboriginal people be heard in Parliament and determine their own affairs. It’s exhausting. It really is. I’m only 58, and this is my third referendum of sorts. So it’s quite exhausting to think about it, but it’s what we must face. So that’s, that’s my next six months.
Rosie 00:30:48 It’s almost unbelievable. It should be so simple.
Deborah 00:30:51 I don’t, I, I feel like we, we voted in an election for a government so that they could make decisions that would benefit society. How have they missed the fact that this would be beneficial? I don’t know. So they’re gonna go back to the people and ask them to vote on it. And I’m really disappointed about that.
Rosie 00:31:09 Yeah. It’s, it’s really disappointing.
Deborah 00:31:13 I don’t know. I, I feel like my story in terms of not knowing who I was, that’s actually Australia’s story. Australia doesn’t know who it is. Not really properly.
Rosie 00:31:43 When you got the chance to meet your mother, and then you discovered the real story of your background, what sort of age were you? Were you in your twenties or was this before you came out?
Deborah 00:31:53 I was in my twenties. I was already out. How I got to meet my mother, actually, I was a member of a lesbian theatre group called Witch Theatre, and they operated in the 1980s in Sydney. And I joined Witch theatre to just, you know, be part of community and get to know people. And in fact, my girlfriend at the time, and I were both part of a play called Dykes on Parade, and it was very successful in Sydney. And so much so that we decided to take it on tour to Canberra. So we went all the way down to Canberra and we were performing at the Street Theatre in Canberra. And I came out on stage, and in the front row, there was a woman who could have been my identical twin. And I tell you, I almost lost my way in, you know, I almost missed my, my first line because at that time, Rosie, I hadn’t seen a whole lot of people that looked like me, let alone someone who looked exactly like me.
Deborah 00:33:02 She had the same reaction. And so at the end of the play, at the end of the evening, we made our way towards each other. This was an entirely lesbian audience. Here’s this woman that looks like me. I’m thinking we’ve gotta be related. I wonder if she’s sister, I wonder who, who I, well, it turned out she was a cousin. And the reason I knew this was I had a very famous uncle, and the only piece of information my adopted parents had ever shared with me about my family, apart from my mother, you know, accusing her, of abandoning me, they had told me that my uncle was a, a famous singer. His name was Jimmy Little. Actually his biography just came out last week. And I wrote the forward of that book for my cousin, in which I tell a couple of stories. But my uncle was a famous singer, and I guess my adopted parents thought that that was okay, because he was famous.
Deborah 00:33:54 You’re allowed to know about him, but no one else in your family. So I had this piece of information that Jimmy Little was my uncle. And so when, when my cousin at in Canberra, who had just seen me performing with Witch Theatre, when she asked me, who are you, where are you from? I had no real answers for her except for the fact that, well, look, I think Jimmy Little is my uncle. She was so taken aback. She said, I’m your cousin, he’s my uncle. I’m your cousin and your aunt, your aunt was meant to be here tonight. I said, what do you mean? Said, yes, your aunt, your aboriginal aunt, she’s a lesbian, a well known one in Sydney. Haven’t you ever met her? Wow. I’m just, I’m having this, I’m thinking, oh my God, it’s genetic, it’s fantastic. Anyway, so she introduced me to my aunt and my Auntie Betty.
Deborah 00:34:47 She’s, she’s long gone now, sadly. But Auntie Betty was well known in the lesbian scene in the eighties and nineties. She was political act activist as well. Incredible, really feisty black woman. Someone to be really proud of. But also fear. When I met Auntie Betty, she just said, well, I suppose you want to meet your mother. Suddenly there was a mother, a mother that I’d written off, a mother I hadn’t thought about, you know? And, and I said, yes, of course, yes, I wanna meet her. So Auntie Betty arranged for me to meet my mother, but on the day that I was meant to, my girlfriend and I, my girlfriend at the time, Donna and I went over to Auntie Betty’s place and it, it, it was awful. Actually, it’d been one of those Sydney weekends where it had rained and rained and rained and we, we got to Andy Betty’s place and you know, the rain was still pelting down.
Deborah 00:35:47 She opened the door and she said, look, your mother’s been in a car accident last night. She’s in a pretty bad way, but we’re gonna go to the hospital. So first time I met, my aboriginal mother was in the hospital. She wasn’t on life support. She, she was conscious, but she had tubes and cuts and abrasions. She’s been a terrible car accident. Her car was t-boned in an intersection and, you know, she escaped with her life, but only narrowly. So I almost didn’t meet her at all. But the first time I met her, I, I took my girlfriend, you know, I just thought, well, you know, my aunt is a lesbian, I’m a lesbian. I’m sure that my mother, even though I’m meeting her for the first time, will be fine with me being a lesbian. Well, it turned out she wasn’t, it was something she struggled with. It was, it was something she struggled with. Which was ironic because in the end, my Baptist adopted mother accepted my sexuality. But when I came out to her that I’d met my aboriginal family, she disowned me. So I had one mother who just couldn’t accept that I was aboriginal. The other one that struggled with the fact I was a lesbian. And I thought, you two need to get together and sort this out.
Deborah 00:37:02 They never did. They never did. You know. But I think that, I think my mom was worried she’d seen what her sister had gone through. Yeah. And she was worried that it was gonna make my life a whole lot harder. And sure there were challenges, but not so many as there would’ve been if I’d had to live a life where I was pretending to be a heterosexual woman.
Rosie 00:37:24 Yeah, exactly. It wouldn’t be better.
Deborah 00:37:27 No, it wouldn’t be better unthinkable, really for me. Yeah. I knew, I, I knew from, from a very early age that I was not interested in the opposite sex. If I’d relented as a Baptist or at any point along the journey where it was just put to me as, you know, the only option if I’d, if I’d ever accepted that, I think I would’ve been a much lesser human being for that. My biological mother, she’s, she struggled with accepting that. She never really came to terms with it. She didn’t exclude me in any way because of it, but I know she struggled with it. And, and that was a sad thing. We, we had enough distance between us simply because of what I’d grown up thinking and, and how late in life I met her. And so there was enough for us to struggle through. We didn’t need that as well. But that’s how it was. And, and what could I do? There was nothing I could do about that.
Rosie 00:38:25 Did she accept her sister? Was she close with her sister, or…?
Deborah 00:38:28 She did, but Artie Betty belonged to another generation that weren’t, you know, she was a political activist. She was a feminist. But, you know, I don’t think that she was, she, she wasn’t closeted, but she wasn’t as out, I think as, as public as I was. I think that my mother, like any mother worries for their child, that they’re making life harder for themselves. I think she thought that. Yeah, no, but she loved her sister. Yeah.
Rosie 00:39:00 And she probably thought, you know, she would love and be proud of her sister, but she might not necessarily want her child to be an activist and to have a difficult life like that.
Deborah 00:39:08 Yeah, true. I, I think, I think that that’s what it was. Our parents do the best that they can. Right. I really do believe that. I do believe that parents do the best that they can. And if that falls short and often it does of expectations, then it, it, it cannot remain a barrier to your life. You have to find your way past that and accept the shortcomings of your parents in the same way that you expect them to accept your own shortcomings. And it hardly ever does it work out that way. Which is why in traditional societies, in indigenous societies, children are not raised by their mother and their father. They’re raised by uncles and aunties. That one step removed is, is for preservation of lots of things. But it’s a time honoured method of raising children in traditional societies. And, and I think one that’s really worth further examination in today’s society, because I think parents do struggle on their own, you know, and there are a lot of single parents, mothers and fathers who, you know, how do they do it? It is such a struggle to, to navigate all of life’s admin and then to do that for, for young human beings as well. It’s really tough. So having a community around you and having your uncles, your aunties as your, as your, the people who do most of the raising of the children is, there’s a lot of sense in that. But I know not everybody has that option.
Rosie 00:40:48 Yeah. It’s so interesting to me actually. Yeah. And it makes so much sense. Cause you’re so, yeah… When you’re really close to a thing, you can’t see the word for the trees.
Deborah 00:40:56 No, you can’t. That’s exactly right. It’s interesting, you know, in later life when I did get to know all of my Aboriginal family, there were cousins who were raised by Monica. So the children of Auntie Betty, for instance, were raised by my mother. Six of Monica’s nine children were taken from her. So it’s heartening to me that she was able to raise my aunt’s children and those children saw her as a mother, you know, and they benefited not only from being raised by Monica, but it actually helped their relationship with their own parents. It’s meant everything to me to piece together who my family is and where I fit into that and how I belong. And I’m forever grateful for that night in Canberra when my cousin was in the audience and I was able to make that first connection.
Rosie 00:41:54 Yeah. And I love that you were performing when you, when that kinda happened and it all intersects and it makes a nice segue to talking about music and your music career, which I can’t wait to do. I work in music as well, and I just wanna hear all about it. So how does your creative world, classical music and opera sort of tell the story of First Nations people, or not tell that story? Is there a way of sort of segueing what you’re learning about First Nations with how you’re making performance art, and theatre, and music around this time of your life?
Deborah 00:42:27 It makes perfect sense that, that opera should be my great love. Hmm. What is opera? It’s ceremony. It’s the coming together of all of the art forms. And that is what ceremony is for indigenous people coming together of song dance, visual art, narrative. All of those things are completely familiar in the indigenous space for millennia. And that’s what opera is. The very first time I experienced opera, it was 1979, and my high school music teacher, who’s still a very dear friend to this day, Jennifer King, took me along to see my first opera, Sydney Opera House. I was there today actually. I’ve written a ballet on commission from the Australian Ballet and it’s premiering on the 2nd of May in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. But, you know, when I went along to see my very first opera, I fell in love with it. And I think it makes absolute and complete sense that music being so essential to indigenous society and opera being so, like ceremony that indigenous people have known for millennia.
Deborah 00:43:38 It just makes complete sense to me. And the fact that I perform or have throughout my early career performed almost exclusively from the western cannon. So what, you know, I also drive a car. It doesn’t make me any less indigenous. Right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you know, I walk everywhere, you know, you know, I’m not wearing a possum skin cloak tonight. It’s, it is just like, I’m a 21st-century aboriginal woman. So whatever is available to me, I experience the world. But I see it through an indigenous lens. I don’t have any other choice. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. Western classical music, my own composition, Abba, who cares if, if it’s storytelling and it’s music. And if it’s worth hearing more than once, then I’m there. You know, quite often aboriginal people are herded onto these cultural missions. You know, we were herded onto missions when our land was taken from us.
Deborah 00:44:36 But in the 20th century I saw artists and musicians and dancers being herded onto what I call cultural missions. That you will only paint in traditional way. You will only sing in traditional way. You’ll only dance in traditional way. Why should that be? So aboriginal culture was always contemporary. It was always evolving to meet the, the changes in environment and landscape. So whether it’s classical music, whether it’s traditional song lines, I’d love to know the traditional song lines of the Y de Yoder and Theon people. But many of those songs were beaten out of people early on in the process of colonisation. And unearthing them is a really difficult task. So what I do is I say, well, the Songline is continuing through me and it sounds different today, but it, it always sounded different as the world changed, the songs would’ve adapted otherwise the people wouldn’t have survived.
Rosie 00:45:30 Yeah. Similarly, I saw, or I read somewhere that your one day in January project it kind of intersected with meeting Chi-chi Nwanoku over in the UK. I can’t remember where you said you’d met her, but yeah. Yeah beause I used to work at Classic FM over in London and when I worked there, Chi-chi got her own show. And Chineke! was really becoming the incredible successful project. It was ethnically diverse musicians making up this entire orchestra completely against, I dunno how to put this, I’m gonna put it in a cynical way – “the odds” – and I’m using air quotes, obviously. Chi-chi was told that you won’t be able to form an orchestra full of Black and ethnically diverse musicians cause they just simply don’t play classical music.
Deborah 00:46:12 No, you’re absolutely right.
Rosie 00:46:14 And what she’s found, and I think what I’d love to hear from you, but what you found speaking with her is that you share that same belief that first of all, that’s absolute codswallop and you can make ensembles of ethnically diverse and Black musicians, aboriginal musicians playing this music if that’s what they so want to do and want to train in.
Deborah 00:46:35 Absolutely. You just need to marry, you know, ability with opportunity wasn’t for lack of ability. It was for lack of opportunity and the weight of low expectation that was the burden of black and ethnically diverse people in the UK and Aboriginal people here. When I met Chi-chi I felt like I was, I was meeting my twin again. You know, we were talking about the same things in the same language and what I’d done in opera for singers, she was doing for instrumentalists at the same time in the UK. The conversation I had with her was the catalyst for, and the inspiration for forming a project that would help to develop an indigenous ensemble here in Australia. And we have that ensemble now, Ensemble Dutala. What’s different about Ensemble Dutala is that in its first iteration, so we are still in the first four years of that, we’re going into the fourth year now.
Deborah 00:47:38 I focused entirely on First Nations musicians. Now this is different for Chi-chi. She’s drawing on Black and ethnically diverse from a range of nations and a much larger population as well. Yeah. Dutala is a Yorta Yorta word, which means Star-filled sky. So that’s the name that I gave to the ensemble as an aspirational title that would say, look, we’re gonna fill the sky with these points of light that are the musicians. I’ve focused entirely the efforts at this point on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians in terms of marrying ability with opportunities. So scholarships that we’re providing through Short Black Opera into the One Day in January Project… there are a lot of titles there. So Short Black Opera is the company, which of course I formed back in 2009 to help singers to find their indigenous singers, to find a pathway to a career in classical music.
Deborah 00:48:41 And now that company is producing the project One Day in January that brings together indigenous orchestral musicians and those who are of a sufficient standard make it into the ensemble Ensemble Dutala. We also have a junior ensemble Dutala program, which is really cute. But what I wanted to do, first of all was give the opportunity to indigenous musicians. We always augment that ensemble du with friends and, and I’m very fortunate to be the First Nations chair of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. So they’re a partner in this project and they provide players to augment our ranks when we need that. But I am thinking also, and I’ve been talking about this with my board and with with Aaron Wyatt, who’s the musical director of Ensemble Dutala and who runs the One Day in January program for me that I’d like to look at the Chineke! model again and perhaps extend Ensemble dutala First Nations people from other places so that this can be a broader program.
Deborah 00:49:52 And that’s not just to get more numbers, but it is to recognise that we have a lot in common in our lived experience. And to celebrate that and to see what kind of an ensemble that produces. But all the scholarships through the one day in January project, they all go to First Nations young musicians. But it was definitely that initial conversation with Chi-chi that made me think this has to happen now. That, and the fact that as a composer, I’d been writing for a lot of ensembles in Australia, most of the state orchestras, many of the most celebrated ensembles in Australia. And never once had I written for an indigenous musician in any of those ensembles. And I thought, well, who’s gonna do something about that if I don’t?
Rosie 00:50:45 Yeah, it’s a really good point. Yeah. I wonder if, is there even a figure of how many members of the kind of Yeah. The state and the kind of renowned orchestras in Australia are indigenous?
Deborah 00:50:57 Well, actually I’m in the middle of a research project at the moment funded by the Lowitja Institute. And it is precisely to find out how many there are. Well, I can tell you none. Wow. And secondly, how many have there been historically one, and he was on the casuals list of West Australian Symphony Orchestra for 10 years, but he was never on contract. And we are, we are all about changing that. But as, as is the case in a lot of things in Australia right at the moment with people waking up to the reality of the true value of aboriginal culture, of indigenous culture, first Nation cultures, and seeing them as an asset rather than a liability for the first time in 230 years, what we’re finding is demand is outstripping supply.
Rosie 00:51:49 Yeah.
Deborah 00:51:51 It seems like only yesterday in one sense that I started this new position at the Conservatoire and it was great. It’s great to go back to my alma mater, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. You know, it’s such a great institution. It has, it has such a long and illustrious history in this country. And to go back there as the Elizabeth Todd Chair of Vocal Studies is a great honour. And in a sense it feels like it only started yesterday. In another way, it seems like I’ve been there for years because it’s a place where I know I’m gonna make the next important contribution to shaping how all musicians think and how they view themselves as, as living and learning on Australian on these unseated lands. And it’s interesting, a lot of people have talked to me about, oh, are you going to teach indigenous music? And I’m thinking, no, I mean, for starters, I’m a chair, so I’m doing a lot of things that are different. It’s not only about that, although it could be about that, but it’s not about that. It’s actually about bringing an indigenous lens and sharing that with all students so that they can have an understanding of, of the lens that they live on. I think I wanna use this position to actually elevate music or to not just elevate it, but to return it to its essential place in society. And that is as a way of knowing and being. Hmm
Rosie 00:53:21 Hmm. And that was gonna be one of my questions, what your kind of mission with this, with this new appointment is if you have a kind of vision, but, but I feel like you’ve just given us a really good insight into that.
Deborah 00:53:31 Yeah, I think, I think it is to help each of the students that I have where I have any influences to help them understand the essential nature of being a musician and that there’s a, there’s a tradition of that on this continent that they can become aware of, get to know and understand and become part of,
Rosie 00:53:53 Yeah. Much more conscious music maker and kind of more conscious human, I suppose at the end of it
Deborah 00:53:59 Certainly is that, certainly that, but especially after a period of time where in Australia, at least musicians and, and those in the arts generally were made to feel less than throughout the pan pandemic years as we were, you know, these students that I’m interacting with now, they are the students who, who missed out on their final two years of school. Yeah,
Rosie 00:54:22 Yeah.
Deborah 00:54:23 They are the students who were practicing away at their instrument over Zoom lessons. So this is a really particular time to nurture and restore a sense of self for those musicians. And I think I can bring a sensibility that, you know, comes with my indigeneity to that. But also, you know, I’ve had a long career in classical music, so I wanna help them find their way into careers that will have longevity as mine has.
Rosie 00:54:55 Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Coming out stories from inspiring lgbtq plus people today. I like asking my guests, although I think as I go on, I’m, I’m, I, i dunno how I feel about this question, but I do like asking my guests what gives them hope that, I dunno how I feel about the cliche of the question just tonight.
Deborah 00:55:27 I don’t think it’s cliched at all. I, you know, it may be cliched for me to give this answer, but music gives me hope.
Deborah 00:55:35 Music gives me hope when I see the way that it, it can light up someone’s life. It can shed light on the darkest night. Music can shine and illuminate the beauty of the world in a way that no other art form can music. And its, its power to change a way of thinking to something more positive or, or to bring the truth into someone’s thinking. Yeah. Music, music, but even more particularly live performance. Yeah. To see human endeavour come together. You can have the most disparate group of people. They could be bickering backstage and they often are. And then they can come together on stage or in the pit or in the recital hall. And music can bring out the truth and the beauty that is within us all that we’re all capable of, but sometimes we lose sight of music. Gives me hope.
Rosie 00:56:46 Yeah. It’s so true. So, so beautiful. What does it like, distills everything into truth, perhaps.
Deborah 00:56:56 I wish I’d said that. Let’s pretend I did. No, I love that you said that, and I, and I quote you on that. It does, music does, it will transmit a truth. It will bypass the analytical and it will, it will actually enter straight into the soul. It does, it distills the truth.
Rosie 00:57:18 And thinking about this, I mean, I just watched, we just all celebrated, World Pride in Sydney a couple of months ago, a month ago, and I watched you at the Opening Celebration. It kind of encapsulates that, like why was there so much music at World Pride? Because obviously music’s the best!
Deborah 00:57:35 It is. Music’s a way of knowing and more than knowing the greater journey in life, which is understanding music. Music is the, is the passage to understanding. And yeah, it was, it was a really exciting time, World Pride. I, you know, I’ve been away from Sydney for a long time. I lived in Melbourne for 16 years and Melbourne’s a great town and it is been very meaningful to me in the formation of short black opera. But coming home to Sydney to live now and at that time to celebrate world pride, it just reminded me of, of all of the work, of all of the 78ers, you know, who lived through that protest. It should have been a celebration. It became a protest and it became one that built, we’ve built upon, you know, and, and so important to recognise that and to celebrate it. And I was just really proud to be part of World Pride and, and to, you know, also then perform with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and have them perform my work as, as part of the Blak & Deadly Gala and have my wife conduct that. You know, it was, it was, it was really special for us and it was a great time. And it reminded me just how great a town Sydney can be.
Rosie 00:58:50 Yeah, you can sometimes. Oh, well thanks so, so much. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.
Deborah 00:58:59 No worries at all. I’m so glad you were able to be patient enough until, until we could actually get a time. Thank you.
Rosie 00:59:10 Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people. You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com. Thank you for listening.
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