Painters and opera go together. Connected by passion and big gestures, it is not surprising that composers are drawn to painters as subjects. There’s Puccini’s fictional Marcello in La bohème and Cavaradossi in Tosca. Whole operas have been devoted to real visual artists: Hector Berlioz in Benvenuto Cellini, about the Renaissance sculptor and Paul Hindemth’s Mathis der Mahler, the Reformation painter. German composer Nikolaus Schapfl recently couldn’t resist the tempestuous painter for his Caravaggio. Soon we shall have our own painter opera with Whiteley. Having a libretto by the successful and prolific Justin Fleming and a score by the go-to composer of the day, Elena Kats-Chernin, Whiteley has a good chance of hitting the jackpot. The life of Brett Whiteley may not have been quite as florid as Caravaggio’s but it certainly was turbulent and will have provided great material to Justin Fleming who has fielded an amazing list of characters. Of course there is Whiteley’s exotic wife Wendy, his beautiful tragic daughter, Arkie, and his mother Beryl. But the full cast includes sculptor Joel Elenberg, Patrick White, and Robert Hughes, not to mention the Queen Mother! A Fijian backpacker also manages to make an appearance. Happily Elena Kats-Chernin writes music that people want to listen to; she was voted number 16 in the ABC Classic Top 100 composers. Whiteley opens at the Opera House on July 15. It’s running time is 2 hours; a lot shorter than The Ring Cycle and probably more fun.
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