Ever since John Adams gave us Nixon in China in 1987, the possibilities for opera have been limitless. Unlike the Greek tragedians who were obliged to set every play in a mythical age of Gods and heroes, contemporary composers have drawn subjects from the news cycle, and from the tawdry lives of latter-day celebrities.
Elena Kats-Chernin’s Whiteley was never going to be Greek tragedy. The closest parallel might be Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, about a celebrity stripper who was never out of the tabloids. Brett Whiteley (1939-92), despite his reputation as an important Australian artist, was another tabloid favourite.
The classic operas are often simple melodramas with a clear, unmistakable storyline. Madam Butterfly’s fate is spelled out in the first act, as Pinkerton reveals his frivolous attitude to the marriage. From the moment he meets Carmen, Don José is set on a course that leads to ruin.
Whiteley’s life was neither a tragedy nor a comedy, it was an indeterminant muddle of alternating highs and lows. The all-time highs arrived with his dazzling success as a young expatriate artist in London in the early 1960s, and in 1978, when he took out all three annual prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW – the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman. The lows were his descent into rank self-indulgence in New York which culminated in his break with Marlborough Galleries, and the long drawn-out heroin addiction that became his other claim to fame. Whiteley the opera is not a coherent story but a collection of episodes stitched together to form a disjointed portrait of the artist.
I was surprised at how engaging the final product proved, although this was partly due to the voyeuristic nature of the exercise. The greatest strength of Whiteley was Elena Kats-Chernin’s music which was unfailingly innovative, lively and intelligent – as we’ve come to expect from this composer. I remember talking to her once about the late Michel Legrande, who wrote the score for movies such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and there was a touch of Legrande in the opening sequences when the young artist was beginning to make his way in the world. Upon Whiteley’s arrival in New York, I thought I detected the faintest trace of West Side Story. Throughout, Kats-Chernin adapted the music to Justin Fleming’s libretto with a facility that flattered the words.
Fleming, who had a lot of bizarre material to work with, tried to squeeze everything into a libretto that switches between the vernacular (the first act ends with Whiteley shouting “Bugger!”) and the self-consciously poetic. Neither register felt convincing.
Any artist’s biography is an awkward subject for an opera. Puccini’s artists such as Marcello and Cavaradossi are purely fictional. Benvenuto Cellini lived a more dynamic life than most, but Berlioz’s bio-opera is rarely performed. Even the greatest artists seem to have spent most of their lives alone in a room making art. There were famous drunks such as Jackson Pollock, bohemians such as Toulouse-Lautrec, and hell-raisers, such as Caravaggio, but there’s not much operatic potential in the spectacle of your hero getting drunk in a bar.
There may be even fewer thrills in the sight of the protagonist shooting up and lying around in a stupor. This is probably why we wait until the end of the opera to see Whiteley pick up a hypodermic, although it also passes for dramatic understatement.
For those who know the Whiteley story well, or even readers of Ashleigh Wilson’s 2016 biography, there are many touches of déjà vu. Every old anecdote about the artist gets trotted out, such as the time he was pulled over to be breathalysed, and told the policeman he’d been “drinking in the universe”. It’s hardly more than a one-liner but it’s made the focus of a dinner party scene with Patrick White. When our hero gets a few bad reviews it’s treated like a maddening persecution, although for most of the time his notices in the press were admiring to the point of sycophancy.
Ashleigh Wilson reminded me that when Whiteley accuses a critic of being “a visual cretin” he was talking about Yours Truly. This is as close as I’ll ever come to appearing in an opera, but it was a lot more close and personal for the artist’s widow, Wendy, who played a major role as muse and love of Brett’s life. It must have been strange for Wendy Whiteley to sit in the audience on opening night, watching Julie Lea Goodwin re-enact the events of her life, including her affair with the poet, Michael Driscoll (Nicholas Jones).
On the other hand, the private life of the Whiteleys has been exposed to public view on so many occasions there’s nothing left that might shock an audience. If there is, it wasn’t to be found in this opera, which gives only the most schematic and fiercely edited version of the artist’s career. There wouldn’t have been an opera without Wendy’s co-operation, and she is rewarded with an ending in which her garden at Lavender Bay becomes a symbol of a lost paradise.
Brett, on the other hand, who was played by celebrated English baritone, Leigh Melrose, is never a sympathetic character. His lines are no more coherent than Whiteley’s own roundabout way of speaking – forever striving for profundity while making grand pronouncements that look cringeworthy when written down. Fleming’s tongue may have been in his cheek when he penned scenes such as the one in which Whiteley shows his monsterpiece, The American Dream (1968-69) to Frank Lloyd of Marlborough Galleries, New York. Lloyd, as the story goes, told Brett he wouldn’t show the painting because it was “too big, political and aggressive”. In the opera we’re tacitly encouraged to believe the dealer was too politically conservative to understand this visionary work.
A more likely interpretation is that Lloyd found the picture to be a garbled, megalomaniac statement that he stood no chance of selling. Fifty years later it looks even more ghastly and pretentious, but this is not the kind of thing that could be said in an opera about the artist’s life. The failure of this painting might be seen as a catalyst that fuelled Whiteley’s rejection of the international art scene – or should that be the art scene’s rejection of him? Once again we’re left guessing.
By the end of Act One, in New York and then in Fiji, Whiteley is already acting like a man out of control, drunk on his own ego, spouting cosmic nonsense. The second act finds him back in Australia, settled into a comfortable life in Lavender Bay, in which the only big moments are his dinner parties, his success in the local art prizes, Wendy’s affair wth Michael Driscoll, and the illness of his sculptor friend, Joel Ellenberg.
If Wendy comes out of this opera looking vaguely noble, it’s an apotheosis for Ellenberg (played by Richard Anderson) whose death from cancer is a tragic event that allows Brett a rare opportunity to show a more human dimension. Ellenberg, who was a talented but minor sculptor, is the only other Australian artist who gets a walk-on role. There’s no room for Michael Johnson, who was Brett’s boon companion in the London days, or for anybody else who came within his orbit. There is, however, a brief scene with Francis Bacon, whom Whiteley hero-worshipped and emulated. There’s also a small, embarrassing cameo of Robert Hughes (Alexander Hargreaves) in a cowboy hat, at the Venice Biennale.
The death of Joel Ellenberg doesn’t play like the death of Violetta in La Traviata, or Mimi in La Boheme. In the opera, Ellenberg is scarcely developed as a character. The death of Whiteley himself is handled in a remarkably oblique manner, but by this stage I doubt that anyone in the audience was sorry to be rid of him.
After Kats-Chernin’s music, the most impressive aspect of this peculiar night at the opera was Dan Potra’s set design that made brilliant use of multiple screen projections to send Whiteley’s works flashing past our eyes past in scene after scene. They looked much better in motion than they do in stationary form. I’ll remember Whiteley as a blur of colour, two hours of good music and bad art history.
Published in Artist Profile 48, July 2019