It was a stiflingly warm Sydney day, the kind where the heat is thick and a nap in a cool room beckons by mid-afternoon. Playwright, author and librettist Justin Fleming had been invited to lunch by Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, the subject of their meeting a mystery.

Whiteley Brett Whiteley’s Self portrait in the studio, 1976. Image: Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 1977. © Wendy Whiteley Photo: AGNSW, Christopher Snee

It wasn’t until Terracini drew his attention to the Harbour, asking Fleming which artist the peerless vista brought to mind, that the penny dropped. “Brett Whiteley,” was Fleming’s immediate response. “Correct answer!” was Terracini’s. Thus were the seeds for Whiteleyplanted, a new opera exploring the life of the irresistible Australian artist with music by Elena Kats-Chernin and libretto by Fleming. It premieres this July for OA, with the pair still hard at work on a piece that’s transformed from workshop to workshop since that lunch in 2016.

Whiteleyhas generated enormous excitement since its announcement last August. Aside from the thrill that accompanies the prospect of a new opera, its subject matter elicits a delicious frisson not unlike the...