World AIDS Day: Understanding Stuart Challender’s story

Close to the Flame

Close to the Flame: The Life of Stuart Challender, by Richard Davis for Wakefield Press, explores Challender’s remarkable career from his early years with Opera Australia to his final battle with AIDS. He was the first Australian celebrity to publicly reveal his illness and his story is not only a vital piece of Australian musical history, but an inspiring one of courage in adversity.

The following is an extract from this new biography, revealing the conductor’s life during 1983. Stuart was heavily involved in the industry during the surrounding years – he’d conducted works by then-early career composer Carl Vine; stood in for Richard Bonynge in a Nederlands Opera performance; and the Sydney Youth Orchestra had invited him as its musical director after Richard Gill’s post.

It was in this time that he received a diagnosis that he was HIV-positive.

We publish this extract in respect of World AIDS Day on December 1. A copy of this book is available for giveaway, and we are also making donations to our chosen youth organisation for HIV/AIDS empowerment.

As 1983 drew to a close, another issue preoccupied Stuart, depressing his spirits. He had recently discovered that he was HIV-positive, meaning that at some time in the past he had been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus and was now a potential victim of the condition known as AIDS, which reduces the body’s capacity to combat infections and diseases.

AIDS had been declared an international epidemic in 1981 and the first Australian victim of it had died just a few months before Stuart received his diagnosis. Stuart was also angry about how he’d received that diagnosis. Early in 1983 he had been asked to take part in a medical survey of immunity levels in the community. He had given a blood sample and been told soon after that his immune system was fine.

A couple of months later, when the authorities began to panic about the AIDS epidemic, all blood samples held in laboratories were retested for HIV. Neither the people who had given the samples nor their doctors were consulted. Out of the blue one day Stuart had received a telephone call from his GP asking him to come to the surgery and on his arrival the news that he was HIV-positive was broken to a shocked and distressed Stuart.

HIV can be contracted in a variety of ways – exchange of body fluids during sex, drug users sharing intravenous needles and, at the time, transfusions of HIV-infected blood in hospitals. In Stuart’s case there is little doubt that he contracted the virus through sexual contact, although he may not have been certain when and from whom it was transferred.

Some years later, Stuart told close friends that he believed he had contracted the virus on one of those ‘idyllic rambles’ just before he left Europe and that he could even identify the location as a farmhouse just over the Swiss border into France. This claim may have been made to protect those with whom Stuart had had sex since his return to Sydney, although he was never promiscuous and unlikely to have indulged in regular casual sex, but we do know that he had lovers during those early years in Sydney. Stuart was secretive about these affairs for several reasons. As an emerging public figure he was terrified of the scandal should his homosexuality became common knowledge, also recognising that he would be unable to confront the situation if this occurred. He was also by nature considerate towards those he loved (his lovers and his family) and so did not want to impose the burden of a scandal on them. Finally, he was in those years far from ready to ‘come out’ as other gay men and women had bravely done, convinced that he would be condemned.

Given the Australian community’s relatively liberal attitude toward homosexuality and how future events would transpire, it is clear that Stuart’s concerns were unnecessarily exaggerated, although did not seem so to Stuart in 1983.

On one occasion, when some gay friends persuaded him to attend the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Stuart’s paranoia came to the fore. Although he would never have donned a costume or be seen on a float or in the march, he did allow himself to be taken to the post-parade party held at Moore Park, but while others revelled with abandon, Stuart spent the evening lurking behind a tree in fear of being recognised.

His companions and good friends felt obliged to keep him company and one of them later recalled that it wasn’t the best Mardi Gras party he’d ever been to, while another friend summed up Stuart’s irrational fear with the succinct observation: ‘Oh well, that was Stuart!’.

Stuart covered his tracks carefully but the identity of some of his lovers is known and he seems to have been deeply attached to them. One was a talented photographer with whom Stuart fell deeply in love and who broke Stuart’s heart when he was unable to match the level of commitment Stuart offered. Another was a sales assistant who worked in a department store, their relationship ended by Stuart on this occasion. There were others, including (it is rumoured) another prominent public figure.

Some of these men became Stuart’s friends; some of his friends looked back in later years and regretted they had not been lovers. In a moment of unusual candour, Stuart once told a journalist:

‘I want to love unconditionally. It’s one of the ideals of sainthood, if you like. But I’m not a saint. People sometimes drive me around the bend! I find myself reacting yet again in the same old patterns. But you try, you try.’


In respect of World AIDS Day, we will donate $10 from each new CutCommon subscription toward YEAH! Youth Empowerment against HIV/AIDS, our chosen organisation from the Australian World AIDS Day affiliations.

Subscribe to CutCommon and you will also go into the draw to win a copy of Richard Davis’ book, Close to the Flame: The Life of Stuart Challender (RRP: $45.00).

About the author

Richard Davis is an internationally acclaimed writer specialising in biographies. Close to the Flame: The life of Stuart Challender is the latest in a series devoted to the lives of famous Australian musicians. Previous titles include Wotan’s Daughter: The life of Marjorie Lawrence, published by Wakefield Press, and biographies of pianists Geoffrey Parsons and Eileen Joyce. These have enjoyed international critical success and earned Richard the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Award for the Arts. Richard is also the author of some lighter books including the popular Great Australian Ghost Stories. He also teaches creative writing.


Subscription offer concludes December 2.


Images courtesy Wakefield Press. Featured image by John Marmaras.

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