Gerald Barry on how a fever made him drag Alice under ground

The composer's operatic take on Alice in Wonderland is a wonderfully strange and funny romp that packs a lot into a bristling 50 minutes

Gerald Barry claims the idea for his latest piece struck him in the midst of a fever. "I was in Birmingham, sick in a hotel with a horrible flu, feeling like death. And, then, suddenly, it came into my head to do Lewis Carroll's Alice."

Given such woozy provenance, perhaps it's no surprise that the resultant opera, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, has been described as "feverish" "manic", "uproarious" and more simply "the craziest opera yet made". The show receives its Irish premiere in a concert performance at the National Concert Hall this week, having already being performed in Los Angeles, and at the Barbican in London.

Barry's critically lauded adaptation has 52 singing parts performed by seven singers, segments in Russian, German, French, Italian and Latin, a croquet match in which every move is related to a separate piano technique, and one bravura sequence in which Humpty Dumpty's Recitation is set to Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Back in his hotel room, gripped by sickly enthusiasm, Barry claims he was incapable of staying put. "I jumped straight out of bed, into town and to a bookshop where I got the Penguin edition of The Annotated Alice."

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Given that it’s become an everyday fixture of children’s entertainment, it’s easy to forget that Carroll’s fantasy is, in many ways, a distinctly adult mélange of poetical allusions, maths problems and linguistic in-jokes, something often lost in other adaptations – although Barry claims he was ignorant of most of these.

"Typically for me, I thought this was an incredibly original idea, all of my own," he says, laughing. "I had no idea there were so many versions of it that other people had done. And this is partly the reason I went with the title Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which was the one used in the first private publication by Lewis Carroll".

Lady Bracknell and the Red Queen

Barry also felt something about that name carried a deeper resonance. “I had never heard of anyone doing it under that name, and “Under Ground” has a sort of light and dark to it which I also liked. Soon I found myself in the hotel, feverishly going through the text and working out what the libretto would be; essentially just cutting up the text.”

This process of selecting what text to use, and what to cut, revealed depths he'd not previously appreciated and, in particular, similarities to the source of his last opera, the similarly ground-breaking and explosive Oscar Wilde adaptation, The Importance of Being Earnest.

“Alice and Earnest inhabit exactly the same world of nonsense and surreality. Carroll can be very like Wilde – even the characters; Lady Bracknell is quite like the Red Queen. They were so similar in fact, I did fear I was making a mistake, because I’d just done Earnest, and would I just be doing the same thing again? But, in the end, I felt like I had to do it. It’s incredibly rich; multi-layered in all kinds of ways that are hard to pin down. It evokes in you all kinds of strange emotional responses that you can’t put a name to.”

Despite his love for Wilde's masterpiece, Barry claims Carroll's work may now have superseded it in his affections. "If someone asked me which of the two original works is the greater, I think I'd say Alice. I cut two thirds of Earnest's text and I think if you'd never come across the original Wilde play, you might not know two thirds of it were missing. The third I kept retains the essential bones, like an X-ray, but what's removed is maybe not as funny now as he thought it was then. A lot of the gags were tied to social and political things that don't really have much meaning for us now. I don't remember anything in the Alice text that had a similar problem; everything in it seems as vivid as it was in the 1860s."

Of course in Barry’s adaptation, the libretto is only one component of the overall effect. As well as the orchestration and performances, there is also the overhead screen to impart surtitles to aid those watching the frenetic events unfold. Eventually, even these become a vehicle for mischief.

"One joke I had in my head," says Barry, "was that people who go to the opera – and people who run opera houses – they're obsessed with surtitles. They have them beamed even when the opera is in English, because sometimes it's not possible to understand English when sung. Since promoters are very nervous about not having surtitles, because the audience will be lost, I decided I could have a bit of fun creating my own."

‘Precise abandon’

In the event, the surtitles drive many comic moments; imparting stage directions, lyrics and, in one memorable scene, some upside-down arithmetic. I remind Barry that this tiny moment got nearly the biggest laugh from the audience when I saw the show in London.

“Yes, well from a simple gag can come something feverish. I don’t like complete abandon but I’m very interested in precise abandon. Sometimes, things are funny because of that formal constraint.”

Since the success of The Importance of Being Earnest, with its madcap staging and 10-minute-long scenes of plate-smashing, Barry has been cemented as a leading wit in an oeuvre not known for boundless hilarity. Does he then feel that opera should take more risks with humour?

“Well, it can’t be done self-consciously. I have a funny bone but I never really set out to be funny. Sometimes I end up with people laughing at what I do anyway, even though its being funny had never occurred to me. Sometimes I laugh when I’m alone, at things I’ve done, but really there are moments in my works which people find funny that I’ve never understood.”

Was this was true with Alice? It seems perfectly engineered for maximum laughs. "When people first started laughing in the LA audience, I was very shocked by it. I didn't know what the sound was. I got really upset. Then, of course, I got used to the idea of them laughing. Then I loved it and eventually I became very unhappy if they weren't laughing enough, or in the right places."

By the end of Alice, the most surprising thing about the entire romp is that it's over within a bristling 50 minutes. Scenes arrive and dissolve at speed, through passages harsh and tranquil, angular and sparse, and all in less time than it would take to watch a double bill of Storage Wars. Alice is short, but sweet, and when the chyron above the stage displays the text "[They sing Jabberwocky in Russian]", it should no longer surprise us that this is done to the tune of It's A Long Way to Tipperary. Barry's brand of precise abandon gives the audience something wonderfully strange, and strangely wonderful.

  • The Irish premiere of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, as a concert performance, will take place at the National Concert Hall on March 4th