GOING ON: Deborah Cheetham shortly before going on stage at the Clarence Valley Conservatorium.
GOING ON: Deborah Cheetham shortly before going on stage at the Clarence Valley Conservatorium. Jojo Newby

Diva brings music into Grafton schoolkids' lives

FEBRUARY 17, 1979 is a date that Deborah Cheetham holds close to her heart.

It was the day her high school music teacher took her to her very first opera.

"That day changed my life," Mrs Cheetham said.

"It allowed me to explore a whole world I had never known before."

Today, the renowned soprano and founder of the Short Black Opera Company is giving Aboriginal children across the country the same life-changing experiences.

She spent the week in Grafton last week with a group of 33 primary school students from Westlawn Public School, South Grafton Public School, Grafton Public School and Gillwinga Public School.

The group learnt four new songs and had the opportunity to work with Short Black Opera's bass baritone Tiriki Onus, manager Toni Lalich and Ms Cheetham.

"Working with the kids is about building their sense of confidence and getting them to tell stories," Ms Cheetham said.

"It gives them a sense of pride and shows them what they can achieve.

"We want them to raise their expectations of themselves and then change people's perceptions of Aboriginal kids."

She said Aboriginal kids always learnt better through the arts.

"In our culture, all the wisdom and knowledge is passed on through song and so they're hard-wired to learn that way," Ms Cheetham said.

"I have a theory that if we engage these kids in the arts, it will keep them plugged in."

The kids had a recital, workshop with Jonathan Welch (creator of Choir of Hard Knocks) and final performance among their daily workshops.

Student Monique Petch said she loved the experience to work with such talented and professional artists.

"I really liked meeting Deborah and Toni and Tiriki and learning new songs," Monique said.

"I was a little nervous for the performance, but I was glad my mum could make it and was surprised by the size of the audience."



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