Don’s operatic journey continues along Cloudstreet

Don Bemrose. Picture: Oliver Toth, Accent Photography.

It’s being billed as Australia’s biggest operatic event of the year — author Tim Winton’s iconic novel Cloudstreet set to song.

And among the cast when the curtain goes up at the world premiere in Adelaide this week will be leading indigenous male opera singer, baritone Don Bemrose.

“It’s such a unique journey to be singing with a main stage company telling an Australian story as a strong Aboriginal character,” Bemrose says. “This is a first for our country.

“For me, opera is the modern day corroboree. You sing it with all your body. You are singing, you are dancing, you’ve got music. To me, it is everything that culturally we’ve always done. This is the current, biggest version of it in modern society.”

For the past month Bemrose and the rest of the cast have been locked in daily rehearsals for the production which is being directed by the award-winning Gail Edwards — the powerhouse behind the original 1998 stage hit The Boy from Oz — and written by composer George Palmer, a former Supreme Court judge.

Already there is speculation around whether Cloudstreet, the opera, will be the next international touring musical to come from Australia.

Bemrose, a Gungarri man whose family is from the Cherbourg Aboriginal community in Queensland, says he’s enjoying the challenge of the production.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been pushed so hard,” he says.

It’s taken four years to get Cloudstreet the opera to the stage.

Winton, a West Australian, will be among the opening night guests, when the State Opera of South Australia production opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide for a week run. The music will be performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Bemrose has the role of Bob Crabbe, a character introduced for the opera version.

“He’s the Aboriginal man who knows the history of number one Cloud Street, the house that the two families in the story occupy, and knows the history that it was once used by a white lady to ‘educate’ young Aboriginal girls through a lot of bad treatment,” Bemrose says.

“She took them from their families and turned them into ladies’ maids.

“We all know that is a part of our history. My grandmother did that through the dormitory system at Cherbourg. She was taken out of school and sent out to be a domestic out in communities in Queensland at the age of 12.

“So this story, while it is a WA story and Tim Winton’s story, really echoes Australia’s history. That there was a history prior to these two families living in this house.

“The journey of the house and the two families is actually about them forgiving and bringing love to the house and in doing that for themselves they actually release the spirits of three girls in the house and heal the house as well.”

Since Winton’s novel, which tells the tale of the Pickles and Lamb families of Cloud Street, was published in 1991 it has been made into a radio drama, a theatre show and a TV mini-series.

Bemrose, who turned to singing as a teenager when he was injured playing sport, grew up reading the book. The seed for his opera career was planted when his grandmother Aunty Ruth Hegarty showed him a documentary about other indigenous opera singer, the late Harold Blair.

He has incorporated part of his childhood into Cloudstreet, where the performers will sing with Australian accents.

“I’m trying to bring that Cherbourg talk to it,” he says.

 

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