A particularly Antipodean colloquialism for masturbation is sung in full operatic voice in the Joan Sutherland Theatre mere moments into the world premiere of Whiteley.
Behind the performers, the Hills Hoist is familiarly rendered (digitally) into the appropriately painterly backdrop. An Esky makes a welcome appearance in scene two.
Yes, this is gloriously, garishly all-Aussie opera. Not simply the European form translated into local strine (a la Simon Phillips’ The Elixir Of Love) or transported to contemporary climates, but an opera about (white) Australians living and working (mostly) in Australia. It’s a history play, in fact, of a boundary-breaking Australian artist who veered between cultural pride and cringe for his homeland.
And so it’s easy to be swept up in Whiteley, a new bio-opera on the life and times of revered artist Brett Whiteley. Especially with a score this accomplished, in a major artistic triumph for underappreciated composer Elena Kats-Chernin. And with the vibrant visual palette that brings Whiteley’s arresting work to life. It’s a piece of theatre at once utterly fresh and refreshingly familiar.
What it isn’t is revelatory about its subject. There’s far too much exposition for that. From the young boy who began painting in school, to the young adult who found his muse in Wendy, to the fledgling artist who created a stir in London, to the father trying to live a simpler life in Fiji. And that’s just act one.
It moves at breakneck speed, possessed by Kats-Chernin’s craggy orchestrations and jagged rhythms. The music, so smartly, is like a Whiteley canvas: vividly coloured with latent power. It’s a journey through infidelity and marriage breakdown, through friends lost and found, through the struggles for respect as an artist and the drive to capture every shade of humanity. Plus the booze, of course, and the drugs, a fateful subject it doesn’t flinch at.
Whiteley does evoke something quite rare and precious. The ambition – like the man – must be celebrated.
Really, it bites off more than it can chew. There’s so much life in Whiteley a decade would have done for a whole night of opera. Capturing it all makes it a potted history with little psychological insight. That’s structural, primarily, but also a failing in Justin Fleming’s libretto, which gets bogged down in superficial narration. It certainly doesn’t match the artistry in the music.
Director David Freeman makes it seem almost too seamless in the telling, employing the company’s new toy, those gracefully dancing video screens, to conjure time and place at the flick of a brush. Dan Potra’s production design relishes having the catalogue of Whiteley work to illustrate each scene. Of the three operas currently in repertory for Opera Australia employing digital sets – Whiteley, Graeme Murphy’s Madam Butterfly and Davide Livermore’s Anna Bolena – this is the most effective and most fun.
It’s been very smartly cast, too. It’s a shame, perhaps, that an Australian performer couldn’t fill the role of a very Australian personality. But it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it as well as Leigh Melrose, who has built an international reputation creating new roles in new work. He disappears under the wiry blonde wig, bringing a swagger and manic energy to each scene – along with that prodigious baritone instrument. It’s a full-throated, fully formed performance.
As Wendy – lover, muse, supporter, apologist – Julie Lea Goodwin (most recently a somewhat controversial though marvelously sung Maria in West Side Story) makes a good fist of the role. And with the real-life Wendy a regular presence in the rehearsal room and front and centre for opening night, that’s clearly been a daunting challenge. But dramatically Goodwin has very little to work with. Questions of what she saw in Brett, how she influenced his work, what kept her in the relationship and what eventually made her leave, linger. We needed some answers to balance the tortured genius tropes.
The role of daughter Arkie is more well-rounded, and emerging soprano Kate Amos makes an impressive principal main stage debut. The awarded and fast-rising tenor Nicholas Jones also stands out in a large principal cast as a friend who comes between Brett and Wendy. Various recognisable figures make cameos, from fellow artist Joel Elenberg (a strong Richard Anderson), writer Patrick White (Gregory Brown), critic Robert Hughes (Alexander Hargreaves), Tate curator Bryan Robertson (Tomas Dalton) and even Her Majesty, Liz II, herself (Annabelle Chaffey).
Which makes for an awfully cluttered canvas. The dramaturgy, frankly, is lacking. And yet what Whiteley evokes is still something quite rare and precious. The ambition – like the man – must be celebrated.
Whiteley plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House on July 18, 20, 24, 27 and 30
Photo by Prudence Upton