Posts Tagged ‘Whiteley’

Whiteley

July 28, 2019

On Wednesday to Opera Australia’s Whiteley.

This was a new opera about the Australian artist, with music by Elena Kats-Chernin and libretto by Justin Fleming.

I’m not really a big fan of Elena Kats-Chernin’s cross-overish style, but obviously it has a following.  The music was effective and there was some striking orchestration. There were a few rather awful bits (cf the fight music in Lohengrin – plenty of composers can write banal music for a dramatic purpose) and quite a lot of what Harriett Alexander has called K-C’s chugging basslines where the basses render an orchestral translation of the bass guitar.  The opening of Act II channelled John Adams for a while.

When you have an opera about an artist, the visuals have to be a big thing.  Here they were mostly deployed on the new video screens.  The most exuberant bits involved Whiteley’s youthful trip to Europe (I loved the train) and his ecstatic encounters with canonical works of Western art – especially Giotto’s St Francis Feeding the Birds.  The depiction of Christie’s murder victims (not on the video screens) via Whiteleys works on this topic was haunting. Whiteley’s more “mature” art (did he ever “mature”?) in the second half was dealt with in a relatively more restrained way. Perhaps it was not to be tampered with.

The problem with a biographical opera is how to arrange the material into a dramatically satisfactory form.  Probably it cannot really be done without a greater sacrifice of truth than Justin Fleming managed in this case. He just had too many facts from Ashleigh Wilson’s authorized (by Wendy) biography to pack in.

Apart from the art, for which Fleming managed a fair conspectus, the other two themes jostled for attention.  These were, on the one hand, Whiteley’s various drug addictions, and on the other hand (the opera downplayed the intersection), Wendy, his love and muse.

Summarised like this, neither is really so extraordinary.  Artists have addictions and they have muses and often both.

Though it might be thought of as commonplace, I personally would have rather had more of the addiction thing and less of Wendy.  That probably wasn’t possible given Wendy’s role as the surviving custodian of brand Whiteley.  As it was, there was lots of Wendy but still she didn’t have all that much to do other than to be beeyoutiful (as Whiteley, Leigh Melrose, who was terrific,  made particular sport of the Australian oooo vowel) and endure BW’s waywardness.  Wendy’s own heroin phase passed with little mention.

By the end I was rather sick of the Whiteley family.

Whiteley’s post-Wendy partner (merely billed as “Janice”) got very short shrift. That’s what happens when you lose a court case and are now dead.

If the opera were to be revived/revised I would cut down the Fiji sequence.  Yes, I know it was meant to be a set-up to the Whiteleys’ (rather underwhelmingly realised) expulsion, but it just went on and it felt a bit too saccharine.

Apparently, K-C already did a major rewrite of the score because as it first came out it was too much like a musical.  The musical language she found was eclectic and hit a credible easy-listenish operatic spot.  It is not music that would drive the public that Lyndon Terracini craves away. The problem for me is that I am out of kilter with that public, which apparently (as Lyndon T will readily tell you) isn’t even interested in Benjamin Britten, let alone the post-expressionism of Brett Dean, whose Bliss was OA’s last mainstage new work.  K-C’s music may not frighten the horses as that did but I can’t really say it draws me in either.

The bums on seats thing is the curse of modern classical music and modern opera.

The uncomfortable truth is that, from an economical point of view, opera is probably a dead form.  That’s not to say it isn’t still alive in terms of performance and interpretation, but when it comes to writing new works, the numbers are all wrong.  My own view is that its death probably goes right back to WWI, which is as good a point as any to pinpoint the shakeup between the economic position of the audience and the performers.  New and popular operas continued to be written and mounted into the 20s (eg, Jonny spielt auf, and Puccini’s later works) but they were living on borrowed time.  Meanwhile, spectacle and music could by the 30s be found at the movies (mass produced) or in blockbuster musical theatre (more popular music and more cost-effective to mount, especially once amplification entered the picture).

Alternately, you could say rather than a “dead form” that opera is a “mature market.”  New entrants have to compete against an enormous back catalogue.  We tend to forget that the operas in the established repertoire which we see to day are but a tiny proportion of the many operas which emerged – especially say in the period 1820 to 1920 – and have since disappeared without much of a trace.

It’s a big ask to predict that any new work will ever join the “pantheon” of established works, or even to hope it will be staged more than once or twice.

Richard Anderson, as Whiteley’s friend, Joel Elenberg, was totally unrecognizable without his beard. I suppose it was covered with the chin equivalent of a bald wig. The alternative possibility, that all his beards have been fake, is just too mind-blowing to contemplate.