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Brett Whiteley: A life, an opera

Sydney Opera House and Opera Australia

Brett Whiteley needs no introduction. He was one of Australia's greatest artists. A rebel. An icon. Heroin was his muse and merciless master.

His story is captivating. His art is extraordinary. 

Opera Australia's Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini thought the story of Brett Whiteley — dynamic, vivacious, larger than life — would make a wonderful opera.

He asked two great artists in their own fields to collaborate on a new work. Composer Elena Kats-Chernin and playwright Justin Fleming obliged, and they've created a work that explores the artist's life and legacy.

Production designer Dan Potra has created an immersive world of Brett Whiteley's most famous works, employing floor-to-ceiling digital panels which fill the stage.

The music

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.”

The words

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.

The costumes

Dan Potra designed the costumes spanning the fashionable decades of Brett Whiteley's life.

Opera Australia's principals and chorus members alike dazzle on stage and behind the scenes at in the corridors of the Sydney Opera House with sartorial Australiana, glamour and extravagant details. 

The costumes in Whiteley revel in the antipodean aesthetic of the era — think Jenny Kee, thongs, '70s glam and Hawaiian shirts. 

Conversation starters

  • Brett Whiteley met Wendy at age 17. She was 15.
  • Whiteley briefly worked in the commercial art department at an advertising agency.
  • A 1961 exhibition in London at Whitechapel Gallery catapulted him to world notice. The Tate Gallery purchased his Red Painting from the exhibition. Whiteley was just 22, the youngest-ever artist to have his work acquired by the famous gallery.
  • Whiteley was part of a fascinating New York scene, centred around the Chelsea Hotel. He partied with rockstars like Dire Straits and Bob Dylan. Janis Joplin once babysat his daughter.
  • The Whiteleys lived in Fiji for a time but were expelled for drug possession.
  • In 1978, Brett Whiteley won the Archibald Prize, the Wynne Prize and the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, the only artist to ever win all three in the same year.
  • His artwork ‘Alchemy’ is used on the cover of a Dire Straits album.
  • Whiteley died in 1992 at the age of 53

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