Opera Australia’s Whiteley
Composed by Elena Kats-Chernin
Libretto by Justin Fleming
I’m a ‘sortov’ Whiteley fan. I find his work beautiful but very much tinged by an opium-saturated imagination. Should this also tinge my opinion of his work? Admittedly it always has a little, but as the character Whiteley states in the bio-opera ‘Whiteley’, ‘all my heroes are addicts, Rimbaud, Bacon, Baudelaire….’ And so they were and their work was/is magnificent.
The opera places Whiteley’s addiction at the core of his life, continually fighting for that prime soul real estate with his art and his closest human relationships; with his wife and muse Wendy and later, their daughter Arkie.
The opera production also frames and illustrates the chronological and physical passage of Whiteley’s life through his work. Wall-size, digital copies of his paintings are projected on giant canvases as his life skips from Sydney to London to New York to Fiji, then back to Lavendar Bay, Australia ‒ acquiring a wife, international recognition, a heroin habit and a baby along the way!
One of the huge teasers for me was to see how Kats-Chernin and Fleming would manage the music and words; how would you turn this relatively modern story of Australia’s most glorified artist/addict into an opera?
The music was perfect; Kats-Chernin kept the ambience grand, befitting the story of great love, great talent and a fatally flawed human being. The libretto did seem to jump a little from insightful to pedestrian, but maybe this was more to do with a 60’s and 70’s hippy-chic lifestyle and preoccupation; a period when the creative counter-culture were smoking lots of joints, drinking lots of booze and musing (lots) about existence.
Musings that we might view as a little lame in 2019 were coming from a 60’s and 70’s generation attempting to enlarge its experience of life and throw off the shackles of conservatism. I thought an example that nailed it in time and space was when Whiteley expresses his desire to touch the ‘tissue between truth and paranoia’. Lame? Profound? Whiteley contemporaries could probably give us a clue as to how the libretto echoed the times but it worked for me.
With respect to our hero’s fatal flaw, when Whiteley pronounces that his was a choice between his art (heroin-fueled) or his life (love and family), well, I think we all can see this more as the ageless cop-out of an addict ‒ and sympathise.
The music by Kats-Chernin and voices of Whiteley (Leigh Melrose) and Wendy (Julie Lee Goodwin) made me believe that theirs was a love that was bigger than life, making their tragedy all the more profound!
A thought-provoking work with big, beautiful sounds and sets.
(*Whitely overdosed in 1992.)