Short black opera team


Deborah Cheetham AO


Deborah Cheetham, Yorta Yorta woman, soprano, composer and educator has been a leader in the Australian arts landscape for more than 25 years.

In the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Deborah was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), 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.

Short Black Opera Café, Death Scenes and Drama Queens and ‘Til The Black Lady Sings were early successes for Deborah Cheetham combining her talents as a writer, performer and entrepreneur. ‘Til the Black Lady Sings has toured to London, New York, Eastern Europe and around Australia for almost a decade.

Deborah’s early career was shaped by an opportunity to study in New York with vocal coaches and répétiteurs from the Metropolitan Opera and Julliard School of Music. Upon returning to Australia, Deborah created her first major work, the critically acclaimed hit Baptist Abba Fan and toured extensively with this show for the next five years.

In April 2007, Ms Cheetham was awarded a two-year Fellowship from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. This fellowship allowed her to create Australia’s first Indigenous opera, Pecan Summer.The following year, she began the process of bringing together in Melbourne, Indigenous singers from around the nation for intensive classical vocal training in preparation for the world premiere of her opera Pecan Summer in October 2010.

The success of Pecan Summer led to the creation of Short Black Opera Company, a national not-for-profit opera company devoted to the discovery and development of Indigenous opera singers. As Artistic Director of Short Black Opera Company Deborah Cheetham has assisted many Indigenous singers to find their voice through the powerful medium of opera. Successive seasons of Pecan Summer have included performances at the Melbourne Arts Centre (Melbourne 2011), WA State Theatre Centre (Perth 2012) and Her Majesty’s Theatre (Adelaide 2014) and the award winning Sydney Opera House production in 2016.

In March 2015 she was inducted onto the Honour Roll of Women in Victoria and in April 2018 received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia for her pioneering work and achievements in the music. In 2019 Deborah Cheetham received the Merlyn Myer Prize to create a new work for the Melbourne based ensemble Syzygy. Cheetham’s commissions for major Australian ensembles continues to grow including works for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australia String Quartet, West Australian Symphony Orchestra String Quartet, Rubiks Collective, Plexus Ensemble, Flinders Quartet and the Goldner Quartet. 

Major Compositions

  • Pecan Summer, Yorta Yorta and English. Australia’s first Aboriginal opera. On-country premiere 2010

  • Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace. Large scale work for soloists, choirs and orchestra. Sung in the language of the Gunditjmara people. Australia’s first resistance-war commemoration for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal performers. On-country premiere October 14, 2019 Port Fairy Spring Festival.

  • MPavilion Acknowledgment to Country Series, Boon Wurrung language. Commission for the Naomi Milgrom Foundation to inaugurate a summer cycle of cross art-form programming. Since 2014 (continuing)

  • Dhungala Choral Connection Song Book, various languages

  • Ancient Land Processional, Kaurna, Boandik and Barngarla languages. Commission for the University of South Australia. Recorded by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra 2018

  • Woven Song Embassy Tapestry Series. Singapore, Dehli, Tokyo, Paris, Rome, The Holy See, Washington, Dublin, Beijing

  • Beneath the Wings of Bunjil. Commission for the City of Casey 2018 opening of Bunjil Place.

  • Tarami Nulay, Gadigal and English. Commission for St Andrews Cathedral School 2017

  • Eternal Birrarung. Commission for the City of Melbourne upon the restoration of the Federation Bells 2013

  • Dali Mana Gamarada, Gadigal language. Commission for the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.


toni lalich OAM


Toni has worked as an accompanist in Melbourne for the past 25 years, performing with professional singers and instrumentalists. After completing her undergraduate studies in Western Australia, Toni studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest.

On her return to Australia Toni completed her Post Graduate studies at the Victorian College of the Arts.

In 2011 Toni accepted the position of Company Manager for Short Black Opera and continues with her role as company vocal coach.

In 2019 Toni received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the performing arts, particularly music.


jess hitchcock

project officer

Jess Hitchcock first joined Short Black Opera as a Developing Artist in 2009. After creating the role of Young Alice in Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer, Jessica has reprised this role in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and at the Sydney Opera House.

In 2015 Jessica joined the SBO for KIDS Regional Touring Team and has collaborated with Deborah on songs for the Dhungala Choral Connection Song Book.

Since moving to Melbourne in 2016 Jessica has become an invaluable part of the SBO team.