In Conversation: Deborah Cheetham AO

In Conversation: Deborah Cheetham AO

The importance of opera and celebrating new music. 

Deborah Cheetham AO
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Deborah Cheetham AO

The importance of opera and celebrating new music. 

Alongside Plexus, you will be performing an arrangement of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs - a moving cycle written just a year before the composer's death. Can you tell me about your relationship with the work and the intimate nature of Cassomenos' rendition for chamber ensemble and soprano? 

Strauss had a great love of the soprano voice; his wife and lifelong companion Pauline inspired and premiered many of his compositions. Sadly, Strauss did not live to hear these songs performed. For me, The Four Last songs represent the pinnacle of art song. Stefan Cassomenos has captured the essence of Strauss' glistening score and distilled it to an intensely intimate chamber performance for six musicians, voice included. It takes a great deal of musicianship to deliver the rhythmic and harmonic fluidity Strauss intended and I like to think we perform this arrangement as a true ensemble rather than a work for soloist with quintet accompaniment.  

The songs, which deal with universal and timeless concepts, carry as much poignancy today as they did at their premiere in 1950. Is the secret to opera and lied's longevity found in the fact that much of the subject matter the genre deals with has not changed over time? 

The poetry is certainly timeless. Even if in the 21st century few of us have the space in our lives to contemplate the world in the way Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff managed in Früling, September, Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot.

Why do you think opera matters today, particularly in our current political and social climate?  

Opera will always matter as long as it remains true to its raison d'être - storytelling, amplified and intensified through music. Opera thrives when it is performed, directed and produced by those who have dedicated themselves to the study of the art form. Of course, opera is expensive to produce. So are postal surveys. We are not the only generation to experience political upheaval, revolutions in the way we conduct our lives and a sense of the pulse of life quickening. We must support our artists and leaders in the world of opera to be courageous and not quite so risk-averse.

As a singer and a composer, why do you think it is important that new operas continue to be written and championed? Do you have words of advice for developing composers interested in exploring the world of classical song?

It is vital that new operas continue to be written, otherwise, what is our legacy to be? We cannot leave behind the legacy of 18th and 19th century and even 20th-century composers. We have a wonderful opportunity as well as serious obligation to tell our own stories and opera is the ideal medium. As opera represents the culmination of all the arts, it presents composers with a wonderful opportunity for collaboration in a profession which can be a rather solitary pursuit at times.

For young singers looking to forge a career on the operatic stage, what words of advice would you offer in regard to making a mark in what is often a highly competitive playing field? 

Immerse yourself in every aspect of the art form. Travel abroad and extend your knowledge in every way you can. Form a partnership with an experienced and capable accompanist (Toni and I have worked together since we first met 12 years ago and will marry as soon as Marriage Equality is achieved. Of course, marrying your accompanist is not compulsory  - but it worked pretty well for Sutherland and Bonynge)

If you had the opportunity to go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself a piece of advice about working in the classical music industry, what would you say? 

I am happy and content with the path I have chosen. It has been richly rewarding in so many ways. If I met my younger self I would give a knowing wink and a smile and say toi toi.

Deborah Cheetham performs with Plexus at the Melbourne Recital Centre on November 12 at 6pm. Tickets and further information here

Main image: Deborah Cheetham AO and Toni Lalich in recital at Sainte Chapelle, Paris 2017. Author profile photo by Kristina Kingston.