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24 February 2020

Decolonising the High Arts Part B

Sonya Holowell Image: Sonya Holowell  
© Josef Goding

Following on from where I left off in Part A, I wish now to share some of the things that came up for me after attending the recent Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit.

The summit (and the previous part A of this report) concluded with some questions about the nature of change itself. My thoughts also circle around this idea of 'change', but rather than asking "what do we want to change?" a more pertinent question to me is what do we want to leave intact?

Discussions on diversity, representation and inclusion in opera seem to avoid confronting the socio-economic realities that are inherent to this heritage institution. Opera and what we know today to be 'classical music' are essentially elitist, Eurocentric constructs. Opera was created for the ruling classes while profiting from and relying upon the lower classes to keep the machine oiled. Every form of marginalisation or discrimination we're seeking to address is tied to the reality of opera as an inherently discriminatory construct, and I believe we do a disservice to each cause if we don't address it on this level (I note the link between class and patriarchy, for example). If there is a responsibility to make publicly funded art for the whole public, then perhaps there may be a fundamental conflict of interest here. Is it possible to fashion an elite, historically private artform for the public, without at least acknowledging it as such? And then without some serious dismantling at this root level?

Australia's social strata has been firmly in place since 1770. The ruling power we got *then* is the ruling power we have *now*. We shouldn't be surprised, 250 years isn't a particularly long time for a total anti-colonial overhaul (that's a much slower burn). We talk of moving forward but this country is stuck in the birth canal, and denial of these colonialist power structures (a function of the power itself) may be why.

When I think of what 'decolonising' means to me, I think fundamentally of a decolonising of the mind. A deprogramming process to dismantle the strongholds of colonisation that have convinced all of us, in various ways, to accept lies as reality. I like the way decolonising is described here as a 'vital internalisation of the rejection of colonialist mindsets and norms'.1 If we were to attempt this, the first step would be to scrutinise the relevant lexicons for inherent biases and assumptions. Unpacking the baggage of definitions, norms, givens, implications, expectations, etiquette, and all that which we consider definitive. To identify borders, benchmarks, qualifiers, limits, motivators, conditions, parameters, cut-off points and unquestioned truths we hold to. To skip this step is to render anyone's good intentions impotent and ultimately futile as we remain stuck in a loop, unable to effect any real structural or systemic change. I think we need a summit dedicated solely to this exercise. And then a summit addressing the class reality of the operatic institution. If we did this, we'd hit on what I think is an incredibly important and difficult question to ask: do the 'traditional owners' of opera want to maintain their grip on the artform? Do they feel entitled to it? To preserve its codes, airs and exclusivities? If so, let's be honest and admit that our welcoming arms extend a certain length and no further.

Then we might find a deeper myth in meritocracy and a new suite of questions to answer, like how are we defining merit? What makes one qualified? Authorised? Who is grading and who is the art benefiting? What are we choosing to award, to reward, to fund? The biases here make a sizeable mark on the art that is not just lauded, but shown at all. What messages do we want public art to reinforce? How subversive is too subversive? What even is 'risky' and… risky for whom? What about the risk of absence, erasure, denial or non-approval?… And then soberingly, what are the implications of coercion in all of this?

A process of decolonising was demonstrated in the summit. It was modelled in the opening statement about First Nations practising their own form of opera for millennia. It was modelled when one participant noted her realisation that in order to be inclusive of First Nations writers, definitions of genres considered 'literary' would need to be questioned and broadened. I particularly loved when someone said we should give people opportunities to learn and make mistakes, and also that opportunities should be provided for new directors to come into their roles from different (non-traditional) angles. Both were examples of decolonising long-held mindsets and traditions. Decolonising happened in the summit when dominant leadership models were challenged in favour of collaboration and sharing. It happened when someone asked "how can we predict that someone (an artist) 'isn't ready'?" And it happened when geography was touched upon, joined to notions like decentralisation and diffusion. So we have begun this peeling-back process. The question is, how far are we willing to take it? I sense the answer here could be proportionate to the degree to which we are willing to give back, hand over, let go.

There are some (including some who co-signed the call to action) who believe we may be asking the wrong questions in trying to address the important issues such as gender inequality that initiated the summit. One of these co-signers asked me- "do some of these groups even want to be brought in to the operatic fold?" I would suggest allowing these voices into future discussions to get some more 'outsider' perspectives, and probably some really innovative ideas.

As Dr Rosales Meza observes "You can have diverse spaces and still have colonialism and colonial mentality present."2 So, are we ok with that? Constructs such as social class can present major barriers in opera. Do we mind?


Cultural Warning: descriptions of deceased First Nations persons.
I honour their memories and legacies, and stand in solidarity with their families and communities

There was something else that came up during the summit that I feel I need to speak to, and that is the use of the word 'reconciliation'. As a First Nations woman I am acutely aware of the contention around this word in many communities and feel a responsibility here to set the record straight.

Before any repurposing, the word 'reconciliation' in the dictionary has two quite different meanings:
The first - "a situation in which two people or groups of people become friendly again after they have argued"
and the second - "the process of making two opposite beliefs, ideas, or situations agree".3

In discussing relations between Australia and the First Peoples of this land, the second definition seems more applicable than the first. But if there's a devil in the detail it centres around the word 'agree', because an agreement on paper is not always indicative of true consent; of empowered choice; of fairness.

Prior to agreement, if there is a pre-existing imbalance of power the party holding this power will either be motivated to reinforce and maintain their power, or by some profound shift in consciousness want to give back what they should. This is not a 'sharing' as sharing implies it was theirs to give (a crucial distinction). The dictionary definition of 'reconciliation' as it pertains to agreement is only a starting point, because unfortunately motivation and means are left open and therefore up to the discretion of the ruling power to set the agenda and effect the terms. With an unauthorised hostage of power there can be no true negotiation, if negotiation implies empowered choice, voice and agency for all parties.

We have seen the hijacking, repurposing and weaponising of reconciliation used in assimilation agendas on this continent since its naming as 'Australia'. A desire for the colonisers to have their cake and eat it. To maintain and continue accruing illegitimate claims to power, but also to foster a sense of ok-ness about it from the other, to disarm pushback efforts so they can enjoy the spoils in peace. I see it like an endless gorging session fuelled by a desire for two things: more food and the ability to digest it. There has always been a deeply entrenched sense of entitlement to both of these things; the crown's take-by-any-means mandate still endures today.

Reconciliation in its political role describes a coming together to forge a new future. But this merging intrinsically erases past crimes which nullifies any need for reparations (through the implication that there's now 'nothing to repair'). So erasure is a necessity to maintain colonial rule. Without this disappearing, the need for systemic and structural overhaul can be seen in plain sight, clear and inarguable; and the need for justice-led reform and compensation becomes an unavoidable reality we're forced to confront. Erasing the foundations of colonial violence against First Peoples also creates a blindness towards the ongoing injustices. How can we recognise what's going on now if we can't see what went on then? Current colonial crimes are simply a continuation along the same continuum; nothing has changed other than the adaptation of means. Weapons of warfare must always adapt.

In the political arena, reconciliation is presented as something we all should surely want, but we all must face who really benefits from this push to 'come together'. It is the one who stands to lose absolutely nothing, including their claim as sovereign ruling authority over these lands and waters; though more transference of power into their own hands is certain.

As a person with felt ancestral ties to this place, yes, I want peace. But if this is not based in truth and remorse this peace is a lie; a strategic construct, a convenient concept, a sinister illusion. Political reconciliation ultimately means peace for the colonisers through continued exploitation of First Peoples. A planned obsolescence; more of the same. I myself will not accept this false peace or the myth of mutual benefit to make the illegality of Australia sit better with people. There can be a real beauty in surrender, but that does not apply here. This type is just as dangerous as it has ever been.

One example of a reconciliation deliverable can be seen in the Reconciliation Action Plan framework, which is a product of Reconciliation Australia. Reconciliation Australia is "a not-for-profit organisation established by the Commonwealth Government to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians for the wellbeing of the nation."4.

I was going to italicise certain clauses in this sentence but I don't think I need to. This description is immensely telling. If you sit with it even for a minute it quite naturally reads "for the preservation of the nation's status-quo hierarchy". Because we all know who is speaking for the nation here; who is deciding what's best. In fact, sitting with it a minute longer, it could easily have been said this time 250 years ago.

I urge everyone to unpack all of this and be honest about what this says about the existence of this word 'reconciliation' in political discourse (and also to notice how much of what we don't think is political, actually is). You could even look further into the aforementioned organisations yourself. What you won't find on the table is any notion of Sovereignty and Self-Determination ascribed to First Peoples. These are erased words in these tightly controlled 'conversations', almost as if they have not been the primary objective of Indigenous activism for each and every year of this ongoing colonial occupation.

Reconciliation sounds like healing and relationship, but under the surface it is a loaded gun when power and control are determining motive and action. A smoke screen, a saccharine front, another gift horse for Troy. There are many First Peoples who believe the word is used to continue the promotion of assimilation, perpetuating the erasure of black voices and the reality of present-day colonial warfare. These opposing voices are rarely heard, and the reason many of you probably don't know about them is not accidental.

What many also don't know is that reconciliation comes packaged with 'recognition'; that is, constitutional recognition, which is again a hugely fraught proposition that far too many of us oppose for it to be considered some collective wish. In 2015 Celeste Liddle noted that the vast majority of Indigenous people do not agree with constitutional recognition5which is obvious to anyone who engages with First Nations communities, rather than receiving from the hand of the Recognise campaign. Since then I'm sure that majority has further increased as there are now many more of us who are coming to see what it will really mean. It is believed that once constitutional recognition occurs, First Peoples will fall under the crown in a way that officiates and cements the ceding of our sovereignty. Reading about the real implications of constitutional recognition is frightening and sickening. I recommend learning from the work of the Vote No To Constitutional Change campaign and Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance to hear the blak voices on the frontline who are not government-sanctioned or media-promoted.

Terms such as 'national unity' that are popular in the discourse (particularly favoured by expert morning TV panels) can easily be substituted for assimilation in these conversations. The concept does NOT mean equality. It cannot while ever this foreign administration and its illegitimate constitution is still the ultimate decider and final authoritative word. Current models of this 'unity' also conveniently do not require anyone to have to give back what was forcibly obtained through colonisation in the first place. That could tell us everything, if we were willing to hear. The late Uncle Tauto Sansbury, who was Chair of the South Australian Aboriginal Congress described constitutional recognition as a "con job, not just by the politicians, but by the mining industry and multinationals that are also funding this program."6. Constitutional recognition as a function of so-called reconciliation is potentially devastating and we must learn why, else we risk perpetuating the harm ourselves in unknowing complicity with the colonial objective.

Relating also to reconciliation narratives is this 'closing of the gap', which should really be a great thing. But I'd ask some additional questions for people to consider:

Were you moved when young Elijah Doughty was deliberately run over in Kalgoorlie, his skull split in half, brain stem snapped, spinal cord severed, most of his ribs broken, pelvis fractured, and leg and ankle mangled, under the ute of his murderer who is currently walking free?

While breathing in the bushfire smoke do we remember David Dungay Jr who said "I can't breathe" 12 times while being held down and knelt on by officers until he died? "If you can talk, you can breathe" one of the officers said before they took his life.

Do you remember TJ Hickey who was chased by police and impaled on a fence, or the two beautiful boys more recently whose chase left them drowned? I remember when my family saw some little Koori boys in billy carts being chased in terror by police cars in The Block. I wonder what happened to them. Speaking of young Indigenous males, ours have some of the highest rates of suicide in the world7.

Our women also regularly continue to face this racial terror; police investigating themselves on deaths in custody; investigations that are fraught with missing CCTV footage, unexplained injuries of victims, reports of unattended screams for help; all with tragically warranted expectations of surviving family members that so-called 'royal commissions' will change absolutely nothing. Right now I'm speaking of the deaths-in-custody of Ms Dhu (deceased 2014), Ms Day (deceased 2017) and Ms Walker (deceased January 2020). There have been countless others.

How did you feel when Kumanjayi Walker was shot three times in the back while in bed, his lifeless body dragged out of his house and thrown head-first into the back of a paddy wagon? What about when the officer, charged with Walker's murder, was then released on bail only hours later, only to receive written public support by the Northern Territory police in a formal statement? Do you stand with Yuendumu? Did you go to a rally; make any donations to the family's ongoing legal quest for justice? Did you feel anything? These are the realities and this is the gap. The fact that despite the relentless rhetoric of 'healing the past', the horrors of apartheid and genocide are still happening, right now as we speak. But we can't scream any louder, and you either care or you don't.

Therefore, as Palmater, Blackstock and Robinson make clear, there should be no talk of 'reconciliation' without justice at the fore (2019). Listening to their message you'll hear that these injustices are realities familiar to all colonised nations.8 In the video, Palmater states "We will never get to real truth, justice and reconciliation until there is a substantial transfer of power, wealth and resources. That means lands have to come back. …. And it also means a recognition and full implementation of our sovereign right to be self-determining… That's why I never talk about reconciliation without talking about truth, justice and reconciliation. You won't get that from hanging artwork in an office."9

Maybe you're wondering, as I often do, what Sovereignty really means? I'd first point you to this fantastic article (2015), which provides a very clear description of both the philosophy and practicalities of sovereignty, including the proposition of an 'Aboriginal state'.10

Like 'decolonisation' I have my own visceral concept of sovereignty. In addition to being very much in agreement with Clayton-Dixon, my own holding of the word is perhaps less informed by how it might look and more about an underlying spiritual principle. To me, sovereignty is a divinely appointed right of jurisdiction. It is based on the premise that caretakership and custodianship are sacred mandates of leadership. This appointment comes with the anointing to carry this responsibility. It comes with the equipping to do so- in this instance the resourcing with thousands upon thousands of years of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, and a particular gift of disposition and way of being with the world. It is an organising that promotes rightful order, proper functioning and harmonious relationships. Loreful sovereignty of this nature is reciprocal and nurturing. The attempted usurping, undermining or overriding of this sovereignty does not nullify or somehow distort any of these truths. And doing so cannot be without consequence; a fact that nature is laying bare.


As one of the participants in the summit stated, there must be challenge, tension and discomfort in conversations like this. We should welcome it, otherwise what are we afraid of? We must pierce the echo chambers with external provocations and alternative viewpoints. Otherwise how can conclusions truly be informed? Alternative viewpoints must also include the unsanctioned, unsettling and unpredictable ones, and agendas not based in truth-telling and kindness should go back to where they came from. At this point if it doesn't hurt, I'd argue it's not really honest.

I think the fact that the summit has led (me at least) to all these branches and root systems is a good sign, a healthy yield. We've hit on many things that need further investigation and identifying and naming them as such is the first step. I'm sure those reading this have identified their own kernels for questioning; I'd love to hear what thoughts others have themselves. This is the currency of unique perspective; an invaluable resource that, in the spirit of Dadirri, says we need to hear what only you can offer; we need you in the circle and we're all better for it. If reconciliation is anything, it is a coming together that upholds and celebrates the sacredness of individuality and the gift of culture, knowing the value but also the limitations of ourselves. A cooperation and coexistence that respects and affirms boundary and governance through mutual agreement. As artists and as people on these lands there is so much more to learn about ourselves, like the fact that no one is immune to bias and social conditioning, including me. It takes a strength of character to admit when we're confronted with this in ourselves, and further, to do what is needed to make things right, informed by listening to those whom these biases hurt. This last part is vital.

Bran Nue Dae:
an example of positive progress?

A couple of weeks after writing the above, I went and saw Opera Australia's production of Bran Nue Dae with my mum, and we really, really loved it. I went into it with my guard up, though.

I was unacquainted with the movie or much of the storyline, but I had read the tagline for the musical:
"The first ever Aboriginal musical celebrates family, forgiveness and reconciliation with a feel-good mash-up of rock-and-roll, gospel, country and blues music."

Slow, summoning in-breath.

Reading this, I thought and felt many things at once that weren't pleasant. Firstly, there was that 'reconciliation' word again, alongside its buddy 'forgiveness', which has long been pushed on colonised peoples without requiring the oppression and persecution to actually stop (therefore rendering 'forgiveness' a particularly dissonant, manipulative and gaslighty concept).

And then there was the weight of 'feel-good'. Feel good for whom, I wondered? I'll be honest, I thought "well of course it would have to feel good for it to be allowed on the stage." Was this going to be more agenda-pushing, false-narrative promoting, more erasure of pain, anger and truth? All this cushioning and assurance of comfort in the tagline had me erring on the side of 'yes', the extent to which would eventually make itself known.

In more pre-show contemplation I recalled the question a few pages up in this report- "How subversive is too subversive?" and then noticed a parallel to the line between the terms 'Survival Day' and 'Invasion Day'. Do we need to soften the blow so they'll hear us? If this is compromise, is it the defeatist or the strategic kind? Does truth-telling end where another's discomfort begins? Is choosing to shift my language from Australia Day to Invasion Day a little too far?

And I recalled another question I asked myself earlier - What messages do we want public art to reinforce? I thought of the narrative of the Sambo-esque 'happy black' stereotype, commonly weaponised through history as propaganda to alleviate guilt, reinforce denial and legitimise further persecution. It got me thinking about the way the disenfranshised 'other' is so often portrayed in opera as content, even to the point of celebration in their lack, struggle, whatever their burden may be. And how this can become fetishised or an object of voyeurism. Hmm, would this be more of the same?

Nevertheless, Opera Australia was presenting a musical, by blackfullas, not at the Opera House.

So I had to wonder, could the presentation of Bran Nue Dae actually be an act of decolonising? Through such a lens I'll present my experience of actually being there, and reflections afterwards.


I mentioned I'd been first struck by specific words in the tagline; really it was the collective impact of 'reconciliation', 'forgiveness' and 'feel-good'. They initially triggered alarm and expectation of some degree of exploitation and caused a sense of front-footedness in me as I was preparing for the show (based on Australia's track record of false narrative and astounding deceit).

However, what I experienced in the production itself was a powerful reclamation of these terms.

The show took them back from the political arena, returning them to the individual, family and community levels for nothing but the edification, betterment and empowerment of the blak characters' lives. Doing so simultaneously also exposed the fact of their misuse in history until this point. It was a type of etymological undoing that subverted and challenged the powers that have laid claim to these terms, recoding and monopolising them in years of political discourse.

While I don't recall the words 'reconciliation' and 'forgiveness' actually being used during the show, they were contextualised as processes of restoration and of healing the wounds of separation; from family, from culture, from community and from one's own identity. What I'd been set up for via the tagline was not what I got, and this was a welcome relief. The dissonance between the seemingly selective, heavily airbrushed, possibly agenda-laden tagline and the actual show content has left me fascinated. It's left me speculating on the authorship and ownership of this sentence, because then I'd have a chance at answering this -

If the production subverted what we were set up to expect in the tagline, was this actually really clever? The show appearing to be a hot-button politically relevant woke timely must-see work about Australia's 'issues' as a nation, when really it was about empowering First Nations People from within?

This is what I do know: The show was either brilliant because of the tagline or in spite of it.

But I need to know whose hands it was in. Till then I continue -

Did we have to promote it as such for people to come? Do we have to master the art of trickery ourselves to get the real truth into audiences, like a few spoonfuls of sugar so we'll take what's good for us? If audiences knew they'd have to confront and sit with painful, uncomfortable or inconvenient truths, would they have bought tickets? And should that have any bearing on it being presented, anyway?

Initially, I read the tagline as "you'll feel great, hear all your favourite jams, and also get a little bit wet with the current political agendas du jour." Interestingly though, the show was clearly highlighting trauma, abuse, genocide, police brutality and forced child removals, though concealed a little by the weave of a comedic texture. Would any of this subject matter have been allowed into the tagline? If it looked something like this?:

"The first ever Aboriginal musical exposes forced family separations, attachment trauma, institutional abuse and ongoing colonial violence in a jarring mash-up of rock-and-roll, gospel, country and blues music."

Is this 'balanced' enough? Perhaps a little too 'Invasion Day'… needs a touch more survival…

A type of tempering certainly came through the show's comedic lens and tone. This comedy also conveyed the reality of and right to joy and celebration that First Peoples can remarkably possess, in spite of pain. This playful cheekiness is inherent to our spirit as First Peoples. From that perspective the uplifted tone reinforced and supported Bran Nue Dae's themes of healing, identity and restoration.

The comedy may have removed the sting of such heavy themes for many in the room, I'm not sure. But for me, I felt it sharply. I was braced for it from the start. I felt it in my own body as Marcus Corowa so brilliantly held the beat-down of trauma in his- and as I watched this fluctuate at different points along the spectrum of his character's empowerment. I felt it in my own throat as Ernie Dingo's husky, weathered, exquisite tone sung out, rich with the emotional complexity of his character that he seemed to resonate with all too easily. Some kind of remarkable, striking, devastating resilience of spirit.

I held it in my mind's eye as the projections of historical photographs of our chained up ancestors struck the back wall. There was the still-lingering sting of the words "Is this the end of our people?" cried out in a harmonic splay that pinned you to the wall. And the feeling I felt when Danielle Sibosado's character remembered the distraught black faces looking back at her as she was stolen away from them as a child. How she then asserted that she was Aboriginal too, despite her discernably lighter skin. And how the audience laughed awkwardly as if this was both simultaneously a completely true yet somehow ludicrous claim. In every display of masterful practice; of rich, timeless knowledge; persevering, unrelenting rhythm, dance and language proudly and unapologetically held up like a banner to the audience, I felt it. This pride and strength stung, too.

I could have cried the entire show, but I also could have laughed through most of it. This was quite a remarkable balance to create. Though there was no obligation to cushion audiences to receive these hard truths, this complex balancing was an art designed and executed with great skill on many levels. I applaud the production for its ability to present such seeming emotional and thematic disparity so cohesively and powerfully.

Still, I continued debating myself, which should no longer be surprising:
…I mean, did it actually have to sting? Does it have to hurt to be potent in subversion; active in resistance? Does activism have to look raw and sound angry? (And how does angry sound, exactly?) Efforts in resistance are not limited to a certain range of feelings, angles, perspectives, aesthetics… just as sacred music is not limited to consonance and predictable harmonic or psycho-spiritual resolution.

More relevant is the question- would extra discomfort be permitted or supported? I'm aware of my circularity when I ask once again- does it have to feel good to be allowed on the stage? What I'm interested in is what is allowable; territory belonging more to the hypothetical, upon which perhaps I can only speculate until I see a clear example of a banned production (not impossible, just requiring homework because they do exist and are many- read unfunded). But it's true that we can't know where the line of acceptability and censorship is until we see something refused.

Here's what's not at all murky. The fact that the late playwright and composer Jimmy Chi told his story, his way. That the show was led by a fantastic, dynamic blak cast and crew. That it was presented outside of the Opera House, in Parramatta, and that it was stylistically well outside of the usual genre business of Opera Australia. These are the markings of a decolonising through geography and artistic control. The title of the musical itself is blatant decolonisation through language, rejecting the projected paradigm of another to reclaim one's own. Projected, expected, and rejected.

Expectations of social etiquette in opera were also challenged in this production. The show's webpage described Bran Nue Dae as a 'relaxed performance'11. I really love this, very much, and hope it catches on to become the standard. It is inviting, welcoming, inclusive and to be honest a humble acceptance of the stuffiness (some would say) of the usual behavioural expectations in opera; a promising sign of self awareness.

I'm just going to copy and paste this straight from the website so you can read for yourself:


The performance on 25 January at 2pm is a designated relaxed performance. There are no significant differences to the production however we aim to provide a more relaxed environment.

A relaxed performance is designed to ensure guests with disability and their families, or anyone who may benefit from a more relaxed environment, can more fully enjoy the performance experience together. This can include people on the autism spectrum, anyone with sensory or cognitive considerations, families with older children*, or any individuals who prefer to watch the performance in a more flexible setting. Anyone can benefit.

Guests are welcome to come and go from their seats during the performance to make the show more accommodating for persons with disability to facilitate any accessibility considerations they may require.

A Social Story pdf guide with performance timings, detailed descriptions and images of the venue will be available in the near future if you'd like to be more informed about what to expect when you visit.

A 'Quiet Space' is available if a break from the show is needed.

Opera Australia would like to thank Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) for their assistance in making this accessible performance possible.

*Please note this production contains strong language, adult themes and sexual references.

The ripples of this welcoming measure extend out into all types of inclusivity, welcoming many different cultures. And extending into the realm of the unique, idiosyncratic individual. Additionally, this notice is just as much a PSA to anyone who would be inclined to reprimand a person for this more 'relaxed' behaviour; a warning to prepare to clutch those pearls good because on this occasion, the house won't be on your side.

It would be amazing if these allowances began permeating even the most pinnacular operatic performance spaces like the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. It could help us to better be able to tolerate difference and even begin appreciating it, both in others and in ourselves. A refreshing, liberating quest for the real.

How did this chill measure affect me on a practical level? Well I could actually laugh out loud in the funny bits, and be a little more rowdy in applause (which performers feed off anyway, making for a better show all round!) By rowdy I mean vocal. If people are going to clap, why can't we also layer in some sweet vocals? Why is that too far? It's funny because I seem to have cultivated a deafeningly loud clap, and maybe this is why; because my voice has been oppressed in these applause games we play. Because I cop a death stare if I bring my voice into it, as if I were summoning the troops for war or something.

Offending sensibilities. Why so perturbed? My mum says I have a beautiful voice.


Up until this point my wild speculations have hinged upon the authorship of this one-sentence piece of marketing attached to the production. I can summarise the speculations as such:

If the writer, director, producer, or anyone else from the show controlled the tagline, then either:

A) the show was brilliant because of it. It reeled people in and then redefined the terms in an act of subversion, strategy and agency.
B) The show was still brilliant, but perhaps there was some feeling of a need to soften the blow which could be seen as more of a compromise than what some might like.

But if one of the affiliated presenting organisations controlled the tagline, then either:

C) This was done to serve option A - Great allyship!
D) This was done to serve option B
E) This was done to push the federal government's current assimilationist agenda operating via the modality of Reconciliation

"The show was either brilliant because of the tagline or in spite of it." In the week or so since I typed that line at the start of this section of writing, I've since made that necessary discovery of learning who wrote the tagline. In the interest of wanting to be fair and thorough, I won't make any loud claims here, but I will say one thing. It's honestly going to take a face to face meeting with some people to convince me that having my guard up was baseless. The words hijacking and political and agenda are ringing in my mind; and the surmising that this show was brilliant in spite of something. Option D as survival or E as invasion.


1) Bergerova, J. (2017). African Regionalism. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/tpt5f0y7seso/african-regionalism/

2) Meza, R [@dr.rosalesmeza]. (2019, September 21). Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/B2pj61LAeNc/

3) Reconciliation. (n.d). In Cambridge Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/reconciliation

4) Arnold Bloch Liebler, Lawyers and Advisors: Social Justice and Public Interest. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.abl.com.au/People/Mark-Leibler-AC

5) Liddle, C. (2015, June 19). 87% of Indigenous People Do Not Agree On Recognition. You'd Know If You Listened. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/19/87-of-indigenous-people-do-not-agree-on-recognition-youd-know-if-you-listened

6) Gregoire, P. (2017, April 9). Indigenous Treaty Now, Not Just Constitutional Recognition. Retrieved from https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/indigenous-treaty-now-not-just-constitutional-recognition/

7) Australian Youth Development Index. (2016). p22. Retrieved from https://nacchocommunique.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/australian_youth-index-2016.pdf

8) Blackstock, C., Palmater, P., & Robinson, E. (2019, April 8). What Is Reconciliation? Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=456639741822681

9) Palmater, P. (2019, April 8). What Is Reconciliation? Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=456639741822681

10) Clayton-Dixon, C. (2015, December 11). I Can't Call Myself An Indigenous Australian And Also Say Sovereignty Never Ceded. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/11/i-cant-call-myself-an-indigenous-australian-and-also-say-sovereignty-never-ceded

11) Opera Australia. Bran Nue Dae at Parramatta Riverside: Relaxed Performance. (2020). Retrieved from https://opera.org.au/whatson/events/bran-nue-dae-parramatta

Further links

Sonya Holowell - homepage

Opera Australia - Bran Nue Dae (2020) - note that the return Sydney season has been cancelled due to the COED-19 pandemic. Read a statement by Opera Australia.

Sonya Holowell’s practice in experimental and improvised vocal music is informed by her diverse background in music spanning centuries, genres and cultural contexts. Her award-winning performances have featured at many of the leading festivals for classical, new and experimental music. 


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Thoughtful provoking

Thank you for this wonderfully written and thought provoking article. It exactly addresses the fault lines between cultures, traditions, between and how and if we can break barriers and inequality. Great writing thank you.