Save for Brett Dean’s Hamlet last year, a more anticipated opera there has not been for a long while than Whiteley. The combined efforts of composer Elena Kats-Chernin and librettist Justin Fleming, and based directly on the life of artist Brett Whiteley (as related primarily through Ashleigh Wilson’s 2016 biography), will shortly finish its run of performances at the Sydney Opera House on 30 July.
How it has lived up to expectations, and whether it is true to its subject, is already receiving much comment. In the first instance, there is no doubting that staging this new work is a momentous event. It is the first opera to be commissioned by Opera Australia since Bliss in 2010. But beyond that, what does Whiteley say about Australian identity? It is a fair question to ask, if only because the artist was himself one of this country’s most celebrated ratbags – indeed stuff of myth and legend.
Gina Fairley, writing for ArtsHub, described the opera as “quintessentially Australian, both in subject and tone”, and summed it up as a “a great Australian story, a great story for opera”, though conspicuously stopping short of declaring it a great Australian opera (she found fault in its structure and flow). Jason Whittaker at the Daily Review called it a “gloriously, garishly all-Aussie opera”, while David Larkin could observe in The Conversation that it combines three national icons: “Elena Kats-Chernin, the doyenne of Australian composers”, “a famous Australian painter”, and “that most recognisable of Australian buildings, the Sydney Opera House”.
Critics seem to agree that the artist’s portrayal is both lifelike and dramatically effective, augmented by spectacularly huge digital projections of his paintings – which as Murray Black noted in The Australian (subscriber site) “are virtually part of our national consciousness”. For Peter McCallum though, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, this made Whiteley Sydney-centric: it is an opera, he suggested, “about Sydney and its people”.
So if it fell short of scrutinising the rebellious, larrikin streak in the Australian psyche through this most rebellious, larrikinish of artistic figures, this bio-opera did nevertheless celebrate key parts of it. Had it done more, it might have been hailed as a (or even ‘the’) great Australian opera. The possibility of being up there with Voss and other contenders for that elusive title – Bliss, for example – is what one imagines a lot of people had secretly hoped.
Kats-Chernin’s music received wide if not effusive praise. McCallum described her score as “finely-crafted”, and Black thought it “accessible, engaging and stylistically eclectic”. However, there were some reservations about the libretto and David Freeman’s direction. Writing for TimeOut, Ben Neutze said both these elements let it down, and Limelight reviewer Justine Nguyen came to the view that the opera does not work well as a piece of theatre.
A bigger question, perhaps, is whether we will see Whiteley again. Black wrestled over this but in the end felt that the work has enough staying power: “Whiteley has a good chance of being an opera that survives more than one season,” he ventured. One hopes he is right. There is too much at stake. For without this opera, future generations – perish the thought – might forget this most colourful episode in the life of a nation.