Whiteley is a new opera about art, addiction and obsession, with music by Elena Kats-Chernin and libretto by Justin Fleming.
Making a biographical opera is a minefield, not least because, in this case, the real life version of one of the main characters on stage is sitting in the audience.
Furthermore, lives don’t always describe an ideal narrative arc, going off on unpredictable and unsatisfying tangents.
Perhaps it is inevitable that, as a drama, Whiteley feels episodic, with the family traipsing from one location to the next as events turn against them, or they turn against themselves.
Until, that is, you realise that, rather than tracing the development of characters, this opera is tracing the development of a body of work. London: Untitled Red Painting. New York: The American Dream. Sydney: The Balcony 2. And on …
Opera Australia’s futuristic floor-to-ceiling screens make perfect sense in this context.
No more jerky and distracting animation which took the edge off their first outing, the 2018 production of Aida.
Instead, in the hands of production designer Dan Potra, with video and projection design by Sean Nieuwenhuis, the digital flats become a dream tool for an art curator, a perfect blank canvas. Iconic works sit centre stage.
Whiteley’s multi-panel works become immersive and suffocating, and we understand the impact of the luminous European masterpieces which inspired him as a young artist.
In one of the most dramatic uses of the screens, when Whiteley goes to a Zen garden to get off heroin, the entire auditorium is flooded with white light and the audience blinks, over-exposed.
The action has to work hard to upstage this dazzling backdrop, but one of the achievements of this production, directed by David Freeman, is the way that it moves from public exhibition to pillow talk to internal voices so seamlessly: the art is on the screen, but the drama is in the words and music.
Justin Fleming has constructed a tight libretto, predictably peppered with “fucks” and “wanks”, but nevertheless telling a complex story with great skill.
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A mostly home-grown cast brings the score and libretto to vibrant life.
The ensemble relish their multifarious roles as tourists, artlovers, Sydneysiders and critics, projecting a rich chorus sound and providing a range of cameos as the famous and infamous characters punctuating an extraordinary life.
Annabelle Chaffey and Gregory Brown, for example, do uncanny takes on Queen Elizabeth II and Patrick White. Richard Anderson is a sympathetic Joel Elenberg, while Nicholas Jones, as Michael Driscoll, injects darkness into Brett and Wendy’s lives.
In the title role, US baritone Leigh Melrose is on stage for most of the two hours of the opera, throwing himself into the role with a demonic energy. Indeed, his portrayal of the older Whiteley, secure, at least in his own delusional world, is more convincing than the young, still openly vulnerable Whiteley. A rich and ragged tour de force.
Some of the most gripping music, however, goes to the women in Brett Whiteley’s life.
Australian soprano Julie Lea Goodwin shines vocally and dramatically as the charismatic Wendy Whiteley, while Kate Amos is a heart-rending Older Arkie and Natasha Green steals her scene with a light, edgy treble as Young Arkie.
A high point of the opera is the final trio between Wendy, Arkie and Whiteley’s mother Beryl, a poised but moving Dominica Matthews.
The Opera Australia Orchestra sounds terrific and Tahu Matheson, conductor, somehow holds the whole shebang together.
According to an interview with Elena Kats-Chernin which appears in the printed program, this work went through a complete rewrite, musically, in the last six months, shifting from a pastiche-y, tuneful confection into something more dark and lyrical.
The resulting score is so finely interwoven with the artwork and the words and the action that it makes for a strangely undemonstrative score: it is there, and it is right.
You can still hear Kats-Chernin’s signature bass lines, chugging along like a lumpy motor, and the shifting harmonic colours spiked with crazy percussive clatterings. But over this the long, arching melodies hang in the air like unanswered questions. Or, maybe, like Brett Whiteley’s voluptuous brushstrokes.
Later in the interview Kats-Chernin expresses how privileged she feels to have been commissioned to write Whiteley. “I’m just very, very lucky,” she says.
She’s not just lucky. She’s also very, very good, and so is this production.