MAKING MUSIC: Whiteley opera composer Elena Kats-Chernin.
MAKING MUSIC: Whiteley opera composer Elena Kats-Chernin. Prudence Upton

Opera inspiration from the bold and beautiful Brett Whiteley

ELENA Kats-Chernin AO is bringing to the Opera Australia stage in Sydney this month the bold life of an iconic Australian artist in the opera Whiteley.

Seniors News spoke to Kats-Chernin on the eve of the world premiere of Whiteley.

It's late in the evening. She has been home from rehearsal for about an hour and already 40 pages of the 800-page orchestral score has been edited. There is another two scenes to be reviewed before the end of the night.

The kitchen table is strewn with hand-written sketches and drafts. She has to push them away to find a corner to eat.

Once the Whiteley opera work is complete Kats-Chernin will put all the paper in boxes. But, then there is another opera waiting to be written.

Brett Whiteley's 1975 painting, The Balcony 2.
Brett Whiteley's 1975 painting, The Balcony 2. SUPPLIED

She's in bed by 2am then back at work from 5.30am before heading to the rehearsal well before it starts at 10.30am. There's always a lot for her to do before and after each rehearsal.

"I am like a machine; I need to work. I make sure I do exercise," the 61-year-old said.

She uses weights at home each morning and does something, even simple exercises, for about 10 minutes which forces her to engage her muscles.

Kats-Chernin is also mindful of what she eats which includes lots of healthy food and no sugar.

"Says she who has just had a chocolate," Kats-Chernin jokingly said.

"But that's OK because somebody gave it to me and it's dark chocolate which I like."

As to using her gym memberships, she admitted "at the moment I don't have time because of rehearsals".

Born in Russia, the child prodigy started playing the piano when she was four and composing from five.

"I just sat down and played," she said.

"I could play anything I saw. I couldn't read the words, but I could read the music."

Her music-loving parents didn't know what hit them.

"They did everything for me to have good lessons," she added.

"They got me special teachers because I was very far advanced immediately, so I was bored at normal music school."

The family moved to Australia in 1975 and Kats-Chernin started at Sydney's Conservatorium of Music.

Her resume is simply outstanding. She has created a huge range of pieces for symphony orchestras across in Australia and overseas and composed pieces for television and film. How many?

"If only I knew," she said.

"Sometimes I don't even remember what I wrote. Sometimes people will say 'you know you wrote that piece and it went like this' and I will have I completely forgotten how it went," Kats-Chernin said.

"I will recover it immediately I hear it, but I forget as every year I write about five hours of music, sometimes more."

And that is after she has written several versions to find just the right score.

"This year alone I have written a piano concerto for Tamara-Anna Cislowska, called Lebewohl, a piano quartet, a piece for the ACO called A Knock One Night, and many more things.

"It sounds crazy but when working on something so big I need another outlet, something else to write."

Does she ever think about anything else? "No" was the emphatic answer.

"I am thinking about it all the time because there is always a project. I am always thinking about it because it's in my blood until something has premiered, and even afterwards I still think I could have done this differently."

If she's not composing, Kats-Chernin said she has to clean the house.

"And I don't want to do that."

The only time she really takes off is when she visits her grandchildren.

"But, don't do that very often. For that I wish I had more time because that is very enjoyable," she added.

There is no date when Kats-Chernin will stop composing.

"There are composers who compose when they are 100. As long as my brain works," she said.

"I think I will compose as long as I can. It's another reason why I work every single day.

"I just think, well I don't know what tomorrow is; 'who knows what will hit me tomorrow', so I need to finish what I am doing and I try every day to send something away to my copyist in case something happens and I don't wake up."

"I would like to clean the house before I go, so that no one else has to do it," she added.

The prolific and highly acclaimed composer partnered with librettist Justin Fleming to honour and share the tumultuous story of Brett Whiteley.

"It's a great subject and inspiring in many ways and very multi-layered," she said.

"He was an iconic artist, Australian, interesting, quirky, genius, flawed; lots and lots of extreme character features which are inspiring to compose.

"I don't want to write about somebody who is a goody two-shoes who does beautiful pastels or something."

It's been an 18-month project for the 61-year-old Sydney resident. Once Fleming's libretto was in her hands in December 2017 Kats-Chernin worked on the Whiteley score.

She has crafted the score to deal with several themes and changes in pace from conversations to aria to the singer or singers talking to the audience and when they talk to each other.

Woven in among her work is dealing with the complexity of fitting the librettist's work and the voices along with the orchestra and digital backgrounds that make up the whole show.

"For me it's like putting buttons on a coat and putting in the detail. It's like which silk do you use; is it going to be silky cotton, is it going to be different colours, is going to be silver or gold with lots and lots of buttons or just big one."

Whiteley is on at the Sydney Opera House until July 30. For bookings, go to

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