Powerful Eumeralla lifts veil on dark past

3 October 2022

Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla is a major artistic achievement and deserves to be taken up by every state orchestra in Australia, writes Stewart Smith.

Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace, WASO and Short Black Opera ·  
Perth Concert Hall, 30 September 2022 ·  

The much-anticipated WA premiere of Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace delivered everything and more, and richly deserved the standing ovation it received at the Perth Concert Hall on Friday evening.  

First premiered in Victoria in 2019, Eumeralla’s local debut was delayed by COVID on two occasions and finally took place three years after it was initially programmed.  

Scored for large symphony orchestra, soloists and multiple choirs, and lasting for just over 70 minutes, Eumeralla is Cheetham’s epic response to the horror of the Eumeralla Resistance War of 1840-63 – a series of battles between British colonists and the Gunditijmara people in southwest Victoria.  

The work is set entirely in the ancient dialects of the Gunditjmara and the libretto, also by Cheetham, is a beautifully executed poetic transformation of the Latin Requiem mass.   

Three people stand in front of lecterns, dressed in their finery, singing. Deborah Cheetham, Linda Barcan and Don Christopher perform Eumeralla.
Deborah Cheetham, Linda Barcan and Don Christopher give voice to ‘Eumeralla’. Photo: Linda Dunjey

From the outset it was Cheetham’s vision to have “non-Indigenous Australians sing alongside Indigenous brothers and sisters”.  To this end, Cheetham’s own Dhungala Children’s Choir was joined by the Penrhos College Choir, and the distinguished contributions of baritone soloist, Don Christopher, a Gunggari man, and Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman and soprano soloist, were complemented by mezzo soprano, Linda Barcan.  All three soloists were excellent.   

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra was expressive and disciplined under Benjamin Northey (special plaudits go to Adam Pinto on piano, Geoffrey Bourgault du Coudray on clarinet and Daniel Schmitt on viola), and the WASO Chorus and the UWA Symphonic Chorus committed to their task with some enthralling and focussed singing.   

The work divides into 19 concise movements, which well suit Cheetham’s general preference to eschew developing or repeating her material. The resultant structure is taut and episodic and unfolds with its own logic and narrative drive. Aiding this was a series of stunning artworks by Gunditjmara, Yorta Yorta and Wemba Wemba artist Tom Day, specifically created for Eumeralla and projected onto a screen above the orchestra.   

Using an unapologetically tonal language, with occasional reference to Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Strauss and Gabriel Fauré (especially in the music for children’s choir), Cheetham creates memorable large-canvas music and powerful drama.   

“Libera Me and “Dies Irae impressed with their evocative choral writing, and at almost every turn Cheetham orchestrates imaginatively and with great colour.  The music sung by the children’s choir is the most affecting, and here Cheetham’s dramatic sensibilities allow for a memorable coup de théâtre, where the dulcet sounds of children singing emerge from a haze of orchestral dissonance.   

By harnessing her heritage, her gifts as a poet, and her training in opera — as a singer and a composer — Cheetham has brought the unresolved history of the Gunditjmara people into the open.   

Eumeralla is a major artistic achievement and deserves to be taken up by every state orchestra in Australia.  Cheetham well understands the power of music, and it is to be hoped that in hearing Eumeralla others will too, so that we might collectively atone for the past and look with hope to the future.   

WASO’s next performance is “Sibelius’ Second Symphony” 7-8 October 2022.

Pictured top: WASO performs ‘Eumeralla’ to a standing ovation. Photo: Linda Dunjey

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Author —
Stewart Smith

Stewart Smith is a specialist in historical performance practice at the WA Academy of Performing Arts and he has performed, recorded and published widely in the field. At the park he enjoys the seesaw though, sadly, does not always find it easy to find a suitable counterbalance.

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