A solo saxophone melody opens Whiteley, winding like a sultry golden-bronze thread through the dark theatre. Then, as the strings burst into life, Brett Whiteley’s signature is dashed in white across the black stage – as if by the artist’s own hand. His exceptional individuality is the heart of this much-anticipated new opera, composed by Elena Kats-Chernin with libretto by Justin Fleming. Whiteley, who died from an opiate overdose in 1992, was a genius of 21st-century art and a flamboyant, troubled, and ground-breaking figure within the Australian art scene.

Leigh Melrose (Brett Whiteley) © Prudence Upton
Leigh Melrose (Brett Whiteley)
© Prudence Upton

Opera Australia pulls out the shots in this tribute. There is a double revolving stage, and OA’s giant LED screens (first rolled out with much money, much hype and little taste in last year’s Aida) are here put to good use. They become a dynamic backdrop of art, enfolding the stage so that this opera takes place, almost literally, inside a Brett Whiteley. One of the most beautiful aspects of his painting is a glorious, sensual use of colour, and the LEDs allow it to spill across the stage in vibrant iridescence. The effect had the audience gasping.

Act 1 charts his rise to fame. We begin with Whiteley (Leigh Melrose) as a tricycle-riding child in suburban Sydney, where his gift is recognised by his caring mother, Beryl (Dominica Matthews). The lightning bolt strikes as he lays eyes on the teenage Wendy (Julie Lea Goodwin), and their passion unfolds as she becomes muse, lover, and wife. We experience his European ascension to fame when, at 22, he becomes the youngest living artist purchased by the Tate Museum. Interspersed throughout is the underbelly of Whiteley’s life; the dark side of his inspiration, including the London Christie murders, and the beginnings of a drug dependency that would eventually cost him both his artistry and those he loved.

Bradley Cooper (Frank Lloyd) and Leigh Melrose (Brett Whiteley) © Prudence Upton
Bradley Cooper (Frank Lloyd) and Leigh Melrose (Brett Whiteley)
© Prudence Upton

The second act occurs in Australia, saturating the stage with the gold-tinged blues and scarlets of Sydney Harbour. We witness his settling in Lavender Bay, his failed attempts at drug rehabilitation and the emotional cost borne by his loving daughter Arkie (Kate Amos), and his divorce from Wendy and the fatal overdose. Although his artistic achievements continue at first, they and his personal life begin to unravel under the rising spectre of his addiction. This half is much less about his career and pushes deeper into the drama of Brett Whiteley the man.

Throughout all this, that beginning saxophone melody recurs as a leitmotif for Whiteley – as exposed, unique, troubled, and striking as the artist himself. Kats-Chernin was recently voted Australia’s favourite female classical composer (beating out St Hildegard of Bingen by 17 places!) and in Whiteley it is so easy to see her marvellous appeal. The score is exceptional. Pay close attention to the instrumentation, one of the opera’s most striking features: always unexpected, lively tipping into manic, yet joyous and inspired – an exciting reflection of Whiteley and his art. Kats-Chernin moves imaginatively through a huge range of musical styles, and each musical turn is unexpected and adventurous. All of this was impressively performed under Tahu Matheson’s baton. A further special highlight was anything involving the chorus. As circles of art critics, the ghostly women of the Christie murders, and Whiteley’s friends, they had some of the opera’s most fabulous music and most riveting scenes.

Julie Lea Goodwin (Wendy Whiteley) and Leigh Melrose (Brett Whiteley) © Prudence Upton
Julie Lea Goodwin (Wendy Whiteley) and Leigh Melrose (Brett Whiteley)
© Prudence Upton

Fleming’s libretto is similarly satisfying, allowing the other characters to fully develop. What the audience experiences is actually an energetic pacing of Whiteley’s life which – especially when combined with the LED animation – makes Whiteley a multimedia opera for the times. Fleming’s words are as lively and enriched as Kats-Chernin’s music. Listen for the wonderful use of scansion, energising in rhythm the meaning of each word.

Melrose is particularly impressive in this sense. There is long, languid stretching of the vowels, singing each syllable to its edge, thinning into ethereal transcendence and thickening into anger, and allowing cracking at the manic extremes – as Whiteley did with himself and his work. Melrose's portrayal is intense and self-consumingly ferocious, and he carries this opera compellingly. Goodwin is an alluring, sympathetic Wendy, with a beautiful shimmering spin to her soprano. Matthews provides both poignancy and comedy as Beryl, and Amos is touching as Whiteley’s loving daughter Arkie.

Whiteley is a wonderful piece of Australian art in tribute to a great Australian artist. In tracing his life, it explores the grounds of Australian artistic self-awareness; and proves, in both its subject matter and itself, that it is a vibrant place to be.

****1