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Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. The opera focuses on the artist’s addictions and his relationship with his wife. Prudence Upton

Opera Australia’s Whiteley brings together 3 icons to tell the artist’s complicated story

Review: Whiteley, Opera Australia, Sydney.

Opera Australia’s newest production, Whiteley, brings together three Australian icons. Elena Kats-Chernin, the doyenne of Australian composers, has written an opera on the life of a famous Australian painter and had it staged at that most recognisable of Australian buildings, the Sydney Opera House.

With Sydney Harbour described as “the jewel of Australasia”, there were moments when it felt like a tourism commercial. However, the artist in question, Brett Whiteley, had an equivocal attitude to his homeland, as the opera as a whole makes clear.

Like so many of his generation, Whiteley aspired to success abroad, and thanks to a travelling art scholarship, he first made a splash in the British art scene. The opera’s libretto by Justin Fleming traces his travels to Italy, his London stint, and his periods in America and Fiji, before his return to Australia. His expulsion from the Pacific island left Whiteley yelling “bugger” as Act I concluded, a heartfelt comment on his forced repatriation.

Nonetheless, after settling back in Sydney, his fame at home skyrocketed as his wider reputation faded. His biographer Ashleigh Wilson represents him as deliberately rejecting internationalism in favour of local celebrity, and certainly his canvases increasingly depicted Sydney scenes. Some of these featured as backdrops during the opera; for instance, the Harbour ferry at the start of Act II was clearly reproduced from a canvas.

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. Prudence Upton

Our fascination with creative artists runs deep, but when it comes to representing their lives in film or on stage, the focus is often on their personalities and biographies rather than on the acts of creation themselves. While several of Whiteley’s paintings did feature (good use was made here of projections by director David Freeman and production designer Dan Potra), the opera’s two main themes were the artist’s turbulent relationship with his wife, Wendy, and his addictions.

The centrality of Wendy was clear from the opening tableau, where the drink-sozzled artist sees her (or imagines her?) in a moment of crisis - but she rejects him. This wordless flash-forward was separate from the main course of the opera, which traced episodes of his life in chronological order.

With Whiteley’s widow present at the premiere, it was perhaps no surprise she was portrayed sympathetically; her affair with Michael Driscoll was preceded by her husband’s infidelities, and she urged him to follow her example and get clean of drugs. “All my heroes are addicts”, sang Whiteley, and his use of alcohol, heroin and other substances is represented as both creatively stimulating and personally destructive.

Julie Lea Goodwin as Wendy Whiteley and Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. Prudence Upton

Read more: In Never Look Away we finally have a painter biopic offering insight into the creative process

Sensitive scoring

Kats-Chernin was recently voted 16th in an ABC survey of Australia’s favourite composers, which made her the second most-beloved living composer (after John Williams), the highest woman in the list and the top Australian.

Her score for Whiteley displayed in the abundance catchy rhythms, attractive melodies and sensitive scoring that have endeared her to so many. Some of the strongest numbers were the lighter ones: the satirical “Brett Whiteley has arrived”, where a stage full of critics pontificated pretentiously about the young artist, had a winsome verve to it.

Other plot elements were given recurring musical motifs. Drug use was signalled by thin, dissonant notes high on the strings, while creative acts were often accompanied by solo winds, including the rare alto flute. The melancholy saxophone music that began the overture later returned as Brett questioned whether Wendy still loved him.

With its shifts in location and time, the libretto sometimes became disjointed, and Kats-Chernin wasn’t always able to solve this. On a few occasions, conductor Tahu Matheson brought a number to an end, and left a few seconds before starting the next. These seams were not always jarring, but they were noticeable and could have been avoided by a few bars of transitional music.

The cast of Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. Prudence Upton

Other parts less to my taste included the schmaltzy D major music in which Fiji was extolled as a paradise, and the ending, where Whiteley’s wife, daughter and mother provided reflections after his overdose.

This trio felt somewhat bloodless: euphonious without being truly melodious, not grief-stricken nor suggestive of the transcendent. Maybe this was the point: a life like Whiteley’s does not offer a clear moral message.

In the title role, Opera Australia newcomer Leigh Melrose was a titanic presence. He sang with power throughout the evening, capturing both the charisma and the darker side of the artist. Julie Lea Goodwin was good match for the role of Wendy, tracing the course from young lover to disillusioned wife in a ringing soprano.

Their daughter, Arkie, was played by two different singers: Natasha Green was the younger version, and sang with very pure tones and accurate pitching, while Kate Amos demonstrated a highly flexible soprano as the older Arkie. Dominica Matthews was as reliable as ever as Whiteley’s mother, and managed to coax some humour out of the part.

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley and Kate Amos as Older Arkie Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. Prudence Upton

Richard Anderson was a strong dramatic presence as Joel Elenberg, one of Whiteley’s two closest Australian colleagues, while Nicholas Jones’s attractive tenor voice made his scenes as Michael Driscoll particularly enjoyable. Fitting a life lived on three continents, a large contingent of small roles was needed, among whom Celeste Lazarenko as a backpacker and Sitiveni Talei as a Fijian Police Officer stood out.

The female members of the Opera Australia chorus were unseen presences in some scenes, but shone when they appeared as the murder victims in a case that fascinated and stimulated Whiteley. The orchestra under Matheson negotiated the tricky corners of the score with aplomb, allowing the driving rhythmic pulse to emerge clearly.

The Whiteley opera appears at a time when debates around opera have ramped up a notch: is it too much in thrall to a canon of past works, and are these works consonant with social values today?

Meanwhile, can Australian opera establish itself on the world stage? Where Kats-Chernin’s work fits into such debates remains to be seen, but that it can be seen right now at Australia’s premier opera venue is an important first step.

Whiteley is on at the Sydney Opera House until July 30.

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