The Portrait: a musical tribute to Stella Bowen

Chamber opera exploring Stella Bowen’s life and love as a woman artist

7 singers: 2 sopranos, 2 mezzo-sopranos, tenor, bass-baritone, bass and piano or 7 instrumentalists

The Portrait chamber opera, with rhymed libretto and evocative music by Becky Llewellyn, is a musical and visual exploration of artists and writers living in the 20s in London and Paris. Bowen is known primarily as the painter of the Australian War Memorial’s stunning ‘Bomber Crew’, the Australian airmen who didn’t return after she sketched them. 

Becky researched Stella Bowen’s life and writings and those of her partner, writer Ford Madox Ford and his lovers Violet Hunt and Jean Rhys, in books they wrote about themselves and each other. Much of Bowen’s life was shaped by love and war, falling in love with Ford who suffered post-traumatic stress after WWI and their bohemian life with other expat artists in Paris. 

The Portrait is based musically in the interwar years of the ’20s-30s in London and Paris, bringing the times to life with songs that have delighted audiences and critics across four states. It can be performed with piano accompaniment or with a seven-piece ensemble. The Portrait features photographs from Stella’s life and her own drawings and paintings which provided inspiration for many of the opera’s songs. 

Becky was commissioned to write a chamber opera on the life of Stella Bowen by Co-Opera General Manager Brian Chatterton in January 2003. It had its first workshop with dramaturg/director Tessa Bremner, musical director Anthony Hunt and seven Co-Opera singers in July 2005. After further refinement, it premiered at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre in February 2006 with six performances of the piano version.

Becky then created an instrumental version for Co-Opera’s travelling opera production which toured New South Wales, ACT and Victoria in 2006. The video of Co-Opera’s final performance was filmed in Ballarat.

The Portrait is a 90-minute fully-sung chamber opera suitable for chamber opera companies and university productions worldwide.

This relatively new Australian work exploring well-known international writers and Australian painter Stella Bowen remains a classic portrait in itself of living and loving as an artist.

What the critics say:
Reviewers found the work compelling: “a significant addition to Australia’s music-theatre repertoire” (State of the Arts); “the musical score is constantly lyrical and eclectic in style” (Canberra Times); “the music possesses immense charm and accessibility” (Adelaide Advertiser); “to have written both the libretto and music is rare in music theatre, and to bring such sharp clarity into The Portrait makes it an outstanding first foray into opera for Llewellyn.” (Adelaide Review).

Watch a trailer from the Co-Opera 2006 production. The full video will be available soon.

Listen to a sample of Stella and Ford’s love: King and Queen of Ten Acres

Listen to a sample of the Co-Opera chorus: Fictions and Fairytales

Listen to a sample of Ford and Stella’s breakup: Windows and Doors

Where to buy

The Portrait score, parts, libretto and visual resources available by negotiation with the composer by emailing her: