Brett Whiteley is a name many Australians would immediately recognise. His artwork shone so brightly and uniquely he was judged and awarded as a true genius the world over. The youngest artist ever (to this day) to have his work purchased by the Tate Gallery in London his celebrity star rose and fell, rose and fell yet his work is what lives on well beyond his untimely death at the age of 53 from a drug overdose.
Another work has now been completed in his name which can continue that legacy. Opera Australia’s commission for a biographical opera of his life, personally overseen by his ex-wfe Wendy Whiteley, was awarded to Elena Kats-Chernin a much loved composer here in Oz. Her work has its own unique, easily recognisable quality yet her love for art allowed her to delve deeply into Whiteley’s life and work to create a musical representation as unique as him. The premiere was held last night at the Sydney Opera House to a very full house.
The rhythm and flow of the music took a while to settle in, switching between vignette scenes of Whiteley’s turning points in life. Such a transient lifestyle, sometimes deliberate, sometimes unavoidable, called for transient music and there seemed to be very little to grab onto.
Whiteley himself said, “I really paint to try and astonish myself. That’s the basic sort of thing. To see what I haven’t seen. That can run off the rails but certainly repetition kills the spirit quicker than anything else. I mean I’d rather not do anything than go over old ground.”
This feels like what Kats-Chernin was aiming to achieve musically as well so, for those familiar with traditional opera looking for the audible clues to the end of an act/scene or where appreciative applause can be given after an aria, this may feel rather unsteady.
Like a musical play, there were times when a musical phase felt complete yet there were still 3 or 4 words needed to complete the sentence. Other times the familiar Kats-Chernin style flowed in great richness and sense of humour where the audience vibe lifted and relaxed. Conductor Tahu Matheson took an active role in the creative process so was well able to steer the very capable orchestra through the new material.
The libretto by Justin Fleming included many quotes and critiques from the life and times of Whiteley. This often dumbfounded the audience with phrases that were patronising in their application and sounded highly intellectual or overly poetic. It felt a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes idea where, if you put your hand up and said “I have no friggin’ idea what you just said”, you might be laughed at. I am guessing these words were the art critic voices Whiteley held in such disdain.
One of the strongest parts of the libretto that the audience responded to was the story of a mass murderer which fascinated Whiteley. In plain English the story was told followed up by a moving gallery of the ladies of the chorus parading past as victims plastered into the walls of his home. Whiteley said he was looking for the singular point of evil and this is what he had found. His astounding painting of the murderer was displayed in the background. A very moving moment.
What were the performers like? The cast, in dealing with the challenges of free flowing music as well as constantly learning newly updated material during rehearsals were dealing with a task far greater than the regular season. They did a fantastic job.
Usually in opera, the singer’s musical capabilities and interpretation take the highest priority but in this production the title role, played by American Baritone Leigh Melrose, showed an acting ability far beyond what is normally expected of a singer. Whiteley is a complex, wide ranging character from a 20 year old surprised at the overnight success, to rock star socialite, tentative father and defeated drug addict.
Creating a character on stage that both newbies or experts can believe in and relate to is an exceptional challenge. Melrose rose to that challenge and I expect there would be few, if any, singers around the world who could better his performance. This is his debut role with Opera Australia and I really hope we see him return to Australia again.
Whiteley’s wife, played by Queensland Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was outstanding. A powerful voice and highly versatile actress. I last saw her in the comedy role of Two Weddings One Bride for Opera Australia and she is well known for her Musical Theatre roles so this role should open the door to more serious roles if she desires.
As gorgeous and glamorous as the real life Wendy, Goodwin carried the story with Melrose progressing from a 15 year old student through to grieving 50-something ex-wife. Well established principal for Opera Australia Mezzo Domenica Matthews gave a very strong performance as Whiteley’s mother – the audience loved her.
I attended the talk Opera Australia held in the Utzon Room of Sydney Opera House 2 weeks ago as promotion for the production. The talk highlighted the constant flow of edits to be managed by a team working through the night to produce manuscripts for the following day. This process had been running 24 hours a day for around 6 months. So the focus of the whole company was “It’ll be alright on the night” and it was. If there were any major mistakes, we didn’t spot them. The mammoth task of creating a premiere seems to have bonded the already strong team vibe amongst both cast and production personnel.
The large video walls previously used in Aida, Madame Butterfly and Anna Bolena were used again for the ever changing scenery, and this time it felt like a perfect balance, neither upstaging nor overwhelming in video imagery. It enhanced the performance with large scale versions of Whiteley’s artwork, sometimes older artwork he was studying bursting into life, other times quiet, abstract panels to keep the focus on the performers – the best production yet in the use of these panels with credit to Director David Freeman, Production Designer Dan Potra, Video and Projection Design Sean Nieuwenhuis.
The audience gave a rousing applause at the conclusion, with many curtain calls. The performance was just over two hours including interval and kept our attention throughout. It is a short season so hurry along if you want to see the most new and innovative production of the year.
Premiere season at Sydney Opera House 15 until 30 July 2019
Opera Australia website: https://opera.org.au/