Following the positive responses to my recent blog ‘Music Minded? Where’s the heart’.
I recently had the absolute pleasure of meeting and interviewing Australia’s foremost Male Aboriginal Classical Artist, Don Bemrose. Don is a classically trained Opera Singer with amazing talent and aspirations of becoming Australia’s leading Opera Singer on the World Stage. Don grew up in a small Hinterland town on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, a proud Gungarri man whose family hail from the Cherbourg Aboriginal community.
An easy going young man with a mischievous smile and great sense of humor which is common when growing up around the Aboriginal Community. It was immediately obvious that Don is a man who likes to tell a story when he broke into immediate laughter after I sat down and asked about his early days and particularly how a young Aboriginal man becomes an Opera singer.
“In Music class at high school” he began in his warm baritone voice, “we had to sing a song for an assessment, in those days I was unable to read music but fortunately I was able to receive some musical coaching from my very first and longest fan, Mrs Cruickshank. I sang “Sunrise, Sunset” from 1964 Broadway musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and received one of the top marks in the grade.”
“My teachers colluded and within months I was selected, along with two other students from my school to audition and be accepted into a Sunshine Coast Regional Youth Choir that toured to Osaka, Japan for an International Chorus Festival.”
From the age of 12, Don had said with conviction he will be an International Superstar, which early on was heard as a child’s flippant remark by his family but with his talent and drive it was something they couldn’t over look.
“I think I have the best family in the world. They are VERY proud, though I am not sure it was always that way. I would have forgiven them for thinking I was just a dreamer.” He laughs. “In fact they may have been happier at first had I chosen to play guitar and sing country. But since singing the National Anthem at the 2008 State of Origin match, Game 2 at Lang Park, I noticed a huge difference in their support and encouragement. Mum and Dad regularly cry when they hear me sing so I can’t have them in the front row because it always gets me started.”
In the Aboriginal community there has always been a push for role models and positive influences. Today, Indigenous mentoring and mentors are a common thing in Schools and the workforce as the work to encourage participant and retention rates whiles offering support to the students or workers. I noticed Don’s position shift slightly in his chair, I think he was anticipating my following question about his role models in an area that traditional wasn’t an area excelled in by Indigenous Australians.
His eyes lifted as taking a second to recount a fond memory. “My inspirational Nana Ruth Hegarty, is a fabulous soprano in her church ensemble. Though never having learnt how to read music, she shared with our family a documentary on a fellow called Harold Blair. I watched with awe, amazement and pride as the story of this proud fellow Gungarri man unfolded.”
“Harold Blair was an amazing Tenor discovered in the cane fields of Queensland who went on to study at the Melba Conservatory and sing around Australia as well as training and performing in New York in the 50s-60’s. Harold was the first ever Aboriginal Singer on ABC Radio”. Don’s face light up with his mischievous grin, “The documentary told of how the Aboriginal prisoners rioted with joy after hearing his first live radio performance.”
“I was struck by the magnificence of his voice and the operatic voice in general, I knew at that moment that I wanted to be an ABORIGINAL Opera singer. I wanted to learn to sing like that, I thought it was incredible.” Upon reflection of the story, Don is amazed at the certainty of his aspirations at that point in time. To be an Opera Singer is what he wanted to be more than anything in the world. And the stardom he jokingly added.
“Life is not about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself” – George Bernard Shaw
“In 2003, I walked away from the music industry because my culture was not being supported or highlighted in anyway. It tore at me for years”. “Did I make the right decision in walking away, in choosing my culture over my career?” Don contemplated. “I wanted to have both my culture and the stage but at that stage I didn’t know how I could.”
“In March 2008 it was all brought together when a phone call from Yorta Yorta descendant Deborah Cheetham, an incredible Indigenous Soprano and Composer, offered me a lead role in Australia’s first Indigenous Opera, Pecan Summer.” With pride swelling in his voice Don acknowledged, “I will never be able to thank Deborah enough for giving me an avenue for my dream to come true to be an ABORIGINAL Opera Singer! And for the past two year I have been living that dream and am so happy.”
“The biggest thing to stand out to me working with Deborah on Pecan Summer was what amazing athletes opera singers are. We all know the stereotypical horned fat lady hitting the high note. But I don’t think anyone who hasn’t trained professionally would know how physically demanding singing is. Many hours are spent training and whilst we don’t see the results as far as superficially muscles, anyone that can effectively scream for 3 hours and still have a voice at the end is doing something brilliant! Standing beside an opera singer whilst they are singing fortissimo is one of the most amazing experiences.”
It is easy to see the passion Don has for his profession and the pride he has for his family and friends and the fact he is so appreciative of the support and hard work that has gone into his budding career. His goal, at the age of 12 was to be the best and this is hasn’t changed.
“I constantly want to improve who I am, how I sound and how I perform. You have to have commitment to yourself and your dream and surround yourself with supportive friends and family that are willing to give you what you need and also hold a mirror to your weaknesses to encourage growth in the pursuit.”
I asked Don if he could list 3 of his future goals and without missing a beat he rattled off:
- Sing the National Anthem at the AFL Grand Final.
- Soloist at the Christmas Carols at the Myer Music Bowl on Christmas Eve.
- Perform at La Scala in Milan, the New York Metropolitan Opera House, Convent Garden in London and our very own Sydney Opera House.
Don is currently writing his first EP with the help of Jessie Lloyd and Songlines Aboriginal Music in Melbourne. He has approached some of Australian’s top classical composers and arrangers to work with him. He new works will speaks of his culture through stories presented in a classical genre with a contemporary Australian Aboriginal edge.
It was a huge honor to interview such an inspirational person who’s passion for music and life is contagious. I recommend keeping an eye out for him because he is going to be one of Australia’s greatest Male Opera Singers.
To contact or stay up-to-date with Don check out the below links:
Blog: Don Bemrose: Blogspot