Tiriki Onus in the role of Bill, ‘Pecan Summer’ by Deborah Cheetham. Image by Jorge de Araujo.

Tiriki Onus awarded Harold Blair Opera Scholarship

VCA alumnus Tiriki Onus (BMusPerf, 2011) is the inaugural recipient of the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust Harold Blair Scholarship, named after Australia’s first Indigenous opera singer, tenor Harold Blair (1924-1976). 

By Dr Jillian Graham

The Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust Harold Blair scholarship will ensure that promising young Indigenous singers have the opportunities necessary to excel.

Deborah Cheetham, Head of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts at the VCA, is acutely aware of the difficulties faced by Harold Blair in the developing of his singing career:

‘It’s never easy to be first. You’re carving a path—you’re a pioneer, and this was at a time when Aboriginal people were not even considered to be Australian citizens. Harold had to overcome obstacles that other aspiring singers would never have dreamed of. These were external attitudes, including the low expectations placed on Aboriginal people. Harold rose above all that, because of his magnificent instrument, and because of some people who believed in him.’

Harold was born at the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve near Murgon in Queensland. Six months after his birth, he and his teenage Aboriginal mother, Esther Quinn, moved to the Salvation Army Purga Mission near Ipswich. Esther soon went into domestic service, leaving Harold behind at the mission, where he received an elementary education.

At the age of 17, Harold was working as a tractor driver at the Fairymead Sugar Mill, when a trade union organiser by the name of Harry Green happened to hear him singing. Harold’s widow Dorothy Blair tells the story:

‘Harry thought that Harold really needed to go somewhere and have proper training, and so he approached the Queensland Government, who weren’t interested. They said, ‘We’ll give him a job as an errand boy, and he can study at night time’. Harry kicked up a bit of a fuss, and eventually got Harold onto ‘Australia’s Amateur Hour’ in 1945, and he received a record number of votes!’

This was at least a start, but Harold was to encounter plenty more challenges in the early years of his career:

‘Harry heard a whisper that Harold was considered a bit of a nuisance, and that he was destined for the Army, so he took him on the fruit train down to Sydney to try for the Sydney Conservatorium. They said he had a good voice, but he wasn’t literate enough. Neither of them had much money, but Harry was determined, so off they went to the University of Melbourne Conservatorium, where the same thing happened.’

This prompted a visit to Australian composer Margaret Sutherland, who immediately phoned her friends John and Gwenda Lloyd, telling them about this Aboriginal boy with a good voice that needed training. Straight away, they agreed to help and invited Harold to stay with them. John and Gwenda’s daughter Jenny Crew remembers this time:

‘As a result of some agitation by my father and others, the Albert St (later Melba) Conservatorium agreed to take him on condition that he get some education. My mother, an experienced teacher, took this on with help from people such as Vance Palmer. Harold lived with us and worked hard, and what he gained by being a member of our family was an ability to relate comfortably anywhere in society.’

According to Dorothy, Harold sang anywhere he could to get experience and to help fund his studies:

‘It was difficult going from one extreme to the other—from the mission and the cane field to the Conservatorium and the spotlight. Fortunately the Lloyds nurtured him, and he completed a three-year diploma in 1949 with honours.’

When American baritone Todd Duncan visited Australia, he was impressed with Harold’s voice, and offered to assist him if he could get to America. John Lloyd took an unpaid year off work to tour Australia with Harold and accompanist Liesel Jorg to raise money. The time in America wasn’t easy either, and Harold cleaned offices and joined the Grace Congregational Church Choir in Harlem to earn money.

After his return to Australia, Harold’s career was diverse. At various times he studied part-time, worked in a department store, taught (including at the Albert St Conservatorium), toured Europe, worked at a service station and a milk bar, worked with choirs, and made numerous concert appearances. He also dabbled in politics, and his interests were increasingly centred on Aboriginal advancement.

Following John Lloyd’s death in 1964, Gwenda set up a fund in his memory, created in the spirit with which they supported Harold, and it provided valuable support for Indigenous education programs. After Gwenda died a year later, it became the John and Gwenda Lloyd Trust, the trustees being their son Philip and his wife Elizabeth Lloyd, daughter Jenny and her husband Neville Crew, and Jenny and Neville’s son David Crew.

In 2009 Jenny approached Deborah Cheetham after a performance in Armidale, saying that they wanted to wind down the fund, and suggesting a contribution to Short Black Opera’s Pecan Summer project. It was on Deborah’s recommendation that the funds eventually be transferred to the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust towards an Indigenous opera scholarship:

‘This scholarship is terribly important. It’s acknowledgement of what Harold achieved, but equally, if not more important, are the opportunities it provides for Aboriginal Australians to realise their full potential, opportunities that have long been denied them. The scholarship recognises the talent and ability within the Aboriginal community, and the time has come to reward that and to raise our expectations of what can be achieved.’

Deborah is delighted about the collaboration between Short Black Opera and the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust:

‘Both organisations are absolutely committed to the health and well-being of opera as an art form. The Trust has an incredibly well-defined mission, and I think it really fills a gap that existed in the education of our aspiring opera singers. And in the same way, Short Black Opera meets a need amongst Indigenous singers that has existed for a long time.’

Indigenous applicants for the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship undergo the same application process as those applying for other Melba Opera Trust scholarships, and are auditioned according to the same criteria. And in line with other scholarships, the Blair Scholarship will provide funding to underwrite its recipient’s intensive development plan, participation in the Mentor Program and access to the Melba Artists Program. The Trust reserves the right not to award an Indigenous scholarship in any given year, and may alternatively consider funding projects that complement the objective of the scholarship.

In 2012, Tiriki Onus was honoured to receive the inaugural Harold Blair Opera Scholarship:

‘When I found out that I’d received this scholarship, I was over the moon, because it meant I could take this year to focus on my voice and on myself as a performer. I always knew I wanted to sing opera, but when I finished high school, where was I to go? The Harold Blair Opera Scholarship is fantastic, because it shows young Aboriginal singers that there is a path. And the fact that it demands a high standard is very valuable. I don’t agree with concessions and handouts, because they can lead to mediocrity rather than encouragement to excel. So far I’ve been challenged by everything I’ve done with the Melba Trust.’

Receiving this scholarship also means a lot to Tiriki on a personal level, as Harold Blair was a close family friend.

‘In his down-time, Harold worked a lot with my grandfather in a souvenir business called Aboriginal Enterprises. There were long car journeys between shops. They’d be driving towards South Australia, with Harold singing away behind the wheel. And all my father could think was, ‘Oh for God’s sake, Uncle Harold—shut up?’ Little did he know!’

Melba Trust Managing Director Peter Garnick emphasises the importance of this initiative, and of the need to continue to grow the fund:

‘We were very excited when Deborah approached us with this idea. It clearly has the potential to provide life-changing opportunities for talented young Aboriginal singers and it complements our own mission so admirably. The corpus of the John and Gwenda Lloyd Trust Fund has generously provided the seed funding for the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship, but our challenge now is to continue to raise money to endow this scholarship in perpetuity. I invite committed opera-lovers to get behind this vital project.’

To make a tax-deductible donation to the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship, visit the Melba Opera Trust website.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.