Elena Kats-Chernin's new opera charts the turbulent story of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, whose meteoric rise to fame was ended by a fatal addiction to drink and drugs.
Opera Australia’s newly commissioned work from Elena Kats-Chernin about the turbulent life of iconic Australian artist Brett Whiteley and his vivacious wife Wendy will have its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House on 15 July 2019.
Simply titled Whiteley, this keenly anticipated production brings together some of Australia’s finest creative talents with director David Freeman at the helm, celebrated composer Elena Kats-Chernin, multi-award-winning playwright Justin Fleming and conductor Tahu Matheson, together with Leigh Melrose and Julia Lea Goodwin in the leading roles.
Whiteley is the third new production in Opera Australia’s digital season, that features twelve of the 7m high, suspended LED screens, choreographed to move seamlessly around the stage. This promises a spectacular stage display, creating an immersive world of Whiteley, incorporating some of his celebrated artworks and emotive graphics on the huge LED screens.
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> View Kats-Chernin discussing her music for Whiteley
Artist, rebel and icon, Brett Whiteley burst onto the international art scene, all golden curls and bravado. He was dynamic, damaged, a big idea and a bold brush. With the vivacious Wendy on his arm, Whiteley was magnetic. He abhorred straight lines, adored drugs, alcohol, women. He worked in vivid colour and ravishing curves. Heroin was both muse and merciless master. Out of this tumultuous life spilled a messy array of brilliant artworks and astonishing self-reflection.
Elena Kats-Chernin is famously prolific. Melody comes naturally. But finding the sound of Whiteley has been an enormous challenge, a years-long project. Faced with the prospect of capturing such an unconventional life in music, Kats-Chernin realised she had to find something unexpected. That might be the sound of the piccolo with the tuba, or piano with pizzicato (plucking) on the strings. An unusual rhythm or time signature. A shifting melody.
“It’s a bit like cooking, you can pair unpredictable things. Salty and sweet together,” she says. Throughout the opera, there’s a sense of drive, of rhythm, of pulse. “He was an obsessive person, and quite anxious. I need to have that in the music.” There’s plenty of beauty and atmosphere in the score she has created. But Kats-Chernin has not tried to write a musical. “The minute I write very tonal music for this show, it’s wrong.”
When it came to writing Whiteley, the composer was always looking for something new, or off balance. “How far can I push it? Where can I go?” Brett Whiteley was too abnormal, she says. Too extraordinary. She didn’t want to write something conventional. “The music has to be interesting.”
Justin Fleming is a distinguished playwright with no shortage of stories under his belt. But when it came to Whiteley, the challenge wasn’t finding the story. It was deciding what to cut out. Fleming focused on three clues to the extraordinary story of Brett Whiteley. First, the dramatic way his career kicked off, as the youngest-ever artist to sell to the Tate Gallery in Britain. “Then there was the addiction. The inextricable link between the addiction and the art,” Fleming explains. “The attempts to sever or cure or repress the addiction, which immobilised his art. “The third element is the wonderful bond with Wendy, right from the start.”
Fleming has constructed a story that draws on the places that Whiteley lived and worked: Sydney, London, Europe, New York, Bali and Fiji. He looked for the moment when Whiteley’s art — and his story — really changed. A powerful scene explores the artist’s fascination with the Christie murders, and the series of artworks he produced in response to the crimes. A set composed of floor-to-ceiling digital screens make it possible to let Whiteley’s enormous portfolio tell part of his story.
Opera Australia's Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini comments: “I think we’ve brought together the best possible team to realise this story, Elena Kats-Chernin in particular is a national treasure and I know her music will resonate with audiences. It’s important that we continue to tell Australian stories and create new works - as an art form we have to keep moving forward with the way we present opera and combining this stoory with our new digital staging, I'm confident it will attract new people to our audience.”
Whiteley is followed in November bythe premiere of Kats-Chernin's children’s opera for the Komische Oper in Berlin, Jim Knopf and Lukas the Engine Driver, based on the award-winning book by Michael Ende. 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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