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Whiteley, the new opera by Elena Kats-Chernin about the iconic Australian artist, was premiered by Opera Australia in July in a stunning production by David Freeman.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s music took the most prestigious Australian stage in July for the premiere of her opera Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. Charting the turbulent life and death of iconic artist Brett Whiteley and his vivacious wife Wendy, the opera saw Leigh Melrose and Julia Lea Goodwin in the leading roles with Opera Australia conducted by Tahu Matheson.

In a New York Times interview Kats-Chernin described how she wanted to create “something modern, something that people can still relate to – somebody who has actually lived, somebody who people have actually met.” At the opera’s close, after the artist’s tragic death, a Rosenkavalier-like trio of female voices including the artist’s wife offered a reflective finale, made all the more poignant at the curtain call when a spotlight picked out the real-life Wendy Whiteley in the audience.

"Kats-Chernin’s finely-crafted score of variegated mood, texture, tone and style... an opera not only about genius but also about the troubled birth of something new in Australian artistic consciousness, in which it became relaxed in its sensuality, transfigured by its beauty and deeply troubled by inner contradictions... This was an opera about Sydney…”
Sydney Morning Herald

"The opera proceeds through a series of fragmentary episodes in the artist’s life, a fragmentation mirrored in the linguistically condensed libretto by Justin Fleming, and with spectacular success in David Freeman's direction... He saturates the stage space with Whiteley’s paintings, often fracturing even these by superimposing them on moving flats, and thus immerses the audiences in the artist’s world... Kats-Chernin’s score is delicate, always allowing the singers to shine effortlessly over it…"
Australian Stage

"...inventive orchestration, kinetic rhythms, evocative yet slightly astringent sound-world and quirky character... the dazzling succession of images reminded us of the sheer brilliance and imaginative breadth of Whiteley's talent... a stimulating, rewarding and moving tribute to a remarkable Australian artist."
The Australian

"... 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... 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."
Daily Review

"...there are riches to be found in Kats-Chernin’s score, colourful and propulsive..."
Limelight Magazine

Following her operatic success in Sydney, Kats-Chernin travels to Berlin in November for the premiere of her new children’s opera commissioned by the Komische Oper, based on the award-winning book by Michael Ende, Jim Knopf and Lukas the Engine Driver. Her new operatic version of Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows receives its premiere at the Staatstheater Kassel in June 2020.

Photo: Opera Australia/Prudence Upton

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