Approached by Opera Australia's artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, to bring Brett Whiteley's tumultuous life to the Sydney Opera House, his ex-wife Wendy was initially "gobsmacked".
Public fascination with the flamboyant Australian artist remains strong 27 years after his untimely death in 1992 from a cocktail of drugs and alcohol.
An exhibition of 116 drawings that reveal the artist's prodigious talents as a draughtsman has just come off the walls of the Art Gallery of NSW, where Wendy sits tableside, her grey hair tucked beneath her trademark headscarf.
Only this summer did Kim Carpenter's theatrical tribute to the golden-haired couple, Brett & Wendy, A Love Story Bound by Art have its world premiere at the Sydney Festival.
From left: Production designer Dan Potra, Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini and composer Elena Kats-Chermin, have put together an opera on the life and work of Brett Whiteley.Credit:Louise Kennerley
But an opera?
"I thought it was a joke or I thought it was an idea they had and they were testing me out," Wendy says. "Then it all started to happen. I met all the people that were going to be involved, the director, the librettist, Justin Fleming, I met [composer] Elena Kats-Chernin for the first time and she was so lovely and so enthusiastic about it all, that I kind of went with it."
It's Friday lunchtime and the vista from Matt Moran's Chiswick At The Gallery stretches from East Sydney to the Woolloomooloo wharves. The crisp blue of the winter's sky is a pale imitation of the ultramarine Whiteley mastered in his expressionist landscapes of the harbour city but it has Wendy hankering for her garden at Lavender Bay.
A short-haired Brett and Wendy Whiteley on their wedding day in 1962: "God, I hate those wedding photos."Credit:AFR
Having overcome her initial scepticism, Wendy has given Terracini's first contemporary opera since Bliss her imprimatur and Opera Australia is hopeful the star power of the Whiteley name will, in turn, bring it sweet box office success.
As subject matter goes, the Whiteley story has all the hallmarks of a Greek drama. With his shock of unruly hair, Whiteley was a prodigious talent who rose to startling heights – instant acclaim in London, twice-Archibald prizewinner and paintings that now sell for millions – and ultimately fell to earth, and it was Wendy who was by his side for much of that rock star ride.
I don't want to be there on opening night with tears streaming down my face, upset.
Wendy Julius was 15, Whiteley 17, when they first met. She followed him to London in 1960 and was by his side for the artist's breakthrough exhibition of the Christie murders, and every milestone and setback thereafter. His lover, his muse, his acrimonious ex, and, following his death at age 53 and that of their daughter, Arkie at age 37 in 2001, she is now the keeper of his artistic reputation.
"Look, I know for a fact that all biographers writing about a particular person, and all opera makers and probably people who are making plays, are dying for the widow and the family to opt out," she says. "They know they are going to end up having a row with [the family] at some stage. I'm aware of that so I try not to be overprotective."
Whiteley would have turned 80 in April had he lived. Tragically dying young from a heroin overdose is central to the artist's public mystique but not what Brett's life was about, Wendy insists.
Artist Brett Whiteley at the Yellow House.
"That's what his death is about, that's all. His life is about being an artist of high repute and in my view of very high calibre, particularly in Australia, but worldwide as well. I know it is a fascinating story for everybody but I just don't want it to be about sex, drugs and rock and roll and nothing else."
Whiteley, the opera, condenses a lifetime into two acts, beginning from Brett's school days, when mother Beryl first observed his talent, to the couple's teen romance and globe-trotting days in 1960s London and New York, occupying a penthouse apartment of Hotel Chelsea.
Act II opens with Brett, Wendy, and Arkie making a home for themselves on the magnificent waterfront of Lavender Bay, the couple having been deported from Fiji for possession of opioids.
Whiteley takes out the trifecta of Archibald, Wynne, and Sulman prizes in 1978, and the opera follows Brett's slide into addiction before ending on a swelling note of optimism.
On the future: "I regret very much that I don' t have granchildren – and her."Credit:Edwina Pickles
Kats-Chernin's music for Wendy is sometimes delicately mysterious and laidback, other times powerful, energetic and strong. When it came to writing Brett, the composer was looking for something new or off-kilter, building a sense of drive, of rhythm and pulse, to convey his creative obsessions and anxiety.
"Brett was ambitious for himself," Wendy notes of his eternal curiosity and restlessness. "He put himself up with the best. He wasn't going to be satisfied with being mediocre. He could never settle."
An entree of crispy spiced calamari and garden chilli arrives for two. Wendy sips from a glass of soda and lime and bitters, a favourite blend that has the bar searching high and low for her requested splash of lime cordial.
She poses for photographs nervously. Arkie, her late daughter, adored the camera, but she regards it with suspicion along with computer technology. People with selfie sticks? Don't get her started.
Wendy has rejected offers to write her memoirs, preferring reportage that exists "in the here and now". In endless sessions of group therapy – she checked herself into rehab three times during the 1980s, the last time kicking free of heroin – she figures she's talked her way to a state of freedom. Her life's an open book, there are no secrets to tell.
But there is pain. It's been 17 years since she lost Arkie, the couple's only child, to rare adrenal cancer. Her death was a "damn sight more surprising and shocking" than losing Brett. "It was almost inevitable by the way he was behaving," Wendy says. "When you've been around the drug scene for a while you know it's in the offing." And yet, she admits, deep inside she thought "he would get through it".
Wendy has asked to be present for the opera's full dress rehearsal so she can be emotionally prepared for when she attends opening night. Too late to catch any egregious errors of fact, she admits, but in the stirring of old memories there lie traps for the human heart.
Brett Whiteley in Sydney with Wendy and their daughter Arkie in November 1969.Credit:Martin Brannan
"Everyone will be anxious to ask me, 'What do you think?' 'Did you love it?'," she says. "I don't want to be there on opening night with the tears streaming down my face, upset, I don't want to. That would be off-limits to me; I'd run away and hide. The minute they touch on Arkie, darling, I start getting upset."
Five years ago Wendy had her own pre-cancer scare, warranting precautionary surgery. She gave up smoking, retaining her signature husky smoker's voice. She doesn't hold to religious faith. Dead is dead.
"Memories keep people alive," she says. "Having children is what that is all about. Like all other animals, you want to reproduce your genes. The garden is going to stand as my legacy."
Wendy quotes back the Serenity prayer when I ask her if she was consumed by anger after losing Brett and Arkie. "What's the point? I used to think of anger as being a great fuel for doing something. Not anymore. A good way of getting rid of anger is to dig a great big hole and curse the soil and nature but to be angry at people for being what they are …"
The restoration of disused land between her home and the railway line in Lavender Bay into magnificent rambling parkland was her road back from grief, Brett and Arkie's ashes resting within its shady nooks.
North Sydney Council has the lease but it is Wendy who pays for its care and maintenance. "Every now and then I've sold a Whiteley. Very rarely. Of course, I've also bought Whiteleys back that I thought important to the collection, earlier works. I've had to keep the foundation of the [Brett Whiteley] studio going as well, there's not enough money coming from anywhere else. It's an incredibly expensive exercise, like the garden."
The spicy calamari of Chiswick At The Gallery.Credit:Edwina Pickles
Mains arrive; a small plate of orecchiette with pancetta, zucchini, mint, pea, and pecorino cheese for Wendy, and sirloin, cooked medium raw, with watercress, mushroom, and a drizzle of Cafe de Paris butter.
Glancing around the packed dining room Wendy wonders if art museums of the world aren't at bursting point.
Art was an elitist pursuit when the couple first left Australian shores. "I've actually had the feeling occasionally that I'd wish they'd go back to football and forget the visual arts but every new museum in the world their brief is to get the people to go. It's a catch-22."
Wendy was an art student at East Sydney Technical College when she met Whiteley, the attraction almost immediate, and gave that up to work at a fashion studio by day, waitress by night, to save for her passage to join Brett in London.
"I was 18 or 19," she says. "I had to talk my mother into signing the papers for my passport. Brett's father didn't want him to go. He knew if I went Brett wouldn't come back, and he was dead right."
Leading the so-called Australian art invasion, Brett became the youngest artist at age 22 to sell to the Tate and soon after the couple married at Chelsea Registry Office. "Brett wore a suit which he never wore again in his life, and cut his hair short. God, I hate those wedding photos."
When Arkie came along she quit her job as a fashion under-buyer. To those who question why she gave up her career, Wendy retorts, "That's #MeToo bullshit". "I didn't do it because I had to, I did it because I chose to and I was having a great life without getting into a situation where I was competing with Brett."
The burden of the Whiteley name isn't what stops her picking up a paintbrush now. "It's not something you can neglect, you have to be passionate in my view to be good enough. I'm hard on myself."
The couple were divorced but still haggling over finances when Brett died in 1992. Drugs pulled them apart but their heroin addiction, Wendy says, was not inevitable, simply "part of the times", "like ice is now".
At 78, Wendy is in discussion with the Art Gallery of NSW, which manages Brett Whiteley's Surry Hills studios as a museum, about succession planning for her collection and archive.
"If Arkie had not died I would be thinking of leaving everything to her children, my grandchildren which I regret very much that I don't have – and her."
Artist Brett Whiteley at the Yellow House.
Chiswick is emptying as we finish desserts of vanilla custard, rhubarb and berries, and a chocolate mousse. How would Brett, who courted the limelight, regard an opera in his name? "I think he would have found it as weird as I do."
Chiswick at the Gallery
AGNSW, The Domain, Art Gallery Rd,
Lunch, Monday-Sunday noon-3pm
Dinner, Wednesday 5.30-9.30pm
Opera Australia's premiere production of Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming's opera Whiteley will be at the Sydney Opera House from July 15-30.
Wendy Whiteley and her curator friend Anna Schwartz are featured in Good Weekend's The Two of Us.
Lunch at Chiswick at the Gallery.Credit:SMH
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