Take a walk on the Wilde side


Gerald Barry’s latest work has been described as hysterically funny, the most inventive Oscar Wilde opera in a century – not bad for something the composer never intended to write in the first place, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

My favorite living composer, Irish composer Gerald Barry, finds the hilarious musical equivalent for Oscar Wilde’s perfect absurdist paradoxes in his riotously outrageous and funny new setting of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Thomas Adès

GERALD BARRY is between operas at the moment. At the beginning of April he effectively took over Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles for two successive evenings when the LA Philharmonic, under Thomas Adès, gave concert performances of his new opera, The Importance of Being Earnest. Tomorrow his first opera, The Intelligence Park, which was first heard in London and Dublin in 1990, will be performed at Imma as part of the museum’s 20th birthday celebrations.

The LA Times’s Mark Swed went into overdrive about Earnest. Not only did he find the opera hysterically funny, he described the score as “highly sophisticated and indescribably zany” and found that even a concert performance proved to be marvellous theatre.

“The world has something rare,” he wrote, “a new genuinely comic opera and maybe the most inventive Oscar Wilde opera since Richard Strauss’s Salome more than a century ago.” And all of this is in reference to an opera that wasn’t intended to be written, or so its composer would have you believe.

“I had had the idea years ago to do it. And some people said it was crazy. What can you bring to that text, that cut-glass text? It seemed a mad project. So I said for ages, ‘No. They were wrong; they didn’t understand.’ And then, after a number of years, I realised that they were right, and I was completely wrong. So I gave up on the idea.

“And then there was this festival with the LA Phil in Los Angeles, and Tom Adès and Chad Smith, the orchestra’s vice-president of artistic planning, asked me to do something. I gave them two possibilities: something on Beethoven and something on Wilde. I only put the Wilde in simply to have an option. I didn’t really mean it. But that was the one that they wanted. So I was forced to do it.

“I remember meeting Seamus Heaney and telling him this, and he said, ‘It was meant to happen!’”

Barry made waves with an earlier opera , The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, in which he set the complete text by the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But he had no misgivings about trimming Oscar Wilde to his needs.

“I knew that that was the crucial thing, that was the major challenge: how to solve that. I cut about two-thirds of the text, so there’s obviously only one-third left. And the structure of the text is such that it absolutely stands up with two-thirds gone.

“It’s like I X-rayed it, and I have the bones left. Honestly, I feel if you had never encountered the Wilde, if you’d never read the original, you wouldn’t know something was missing. It just shows how extraordinarily impressive it is, without precedent or consequence – or whatever the opposite of precedent is. There’s really nothing like it in literature on that level before and nothing like it on that level since. It was a moment of madness for him, perfect madness, and extraordinary nonsense that couldn’t be created again. Everything came together at the right moment for him.”

Some of the lines he cut because they were “simply too complicated to get across in singing. They absolutely depended on being spoken for the wit to work. I tried to keep it simple. It becomes more radical in the third act, when I was getting into it. There’s a chorus in the first act, which appears very briefly, and never appears again. I was trying to figure out a way of solving the text. And all these famous couplets like, ‘A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.’ It’s very hard to get that across to an audience in a way that they’ll understand. Or, ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!’ And I thought of it almost as a Bach passion, maybe, and treated those as chorales. Those became like hymns, and the chorus sing them.

“But I quickly grew in confidence as it proceeded and found that I didn’t need the chorus any more. That’s why they appear only in the first act. They only appear so very briefly, in that first scene between Jack and Algernon, when Algernon is quizzing him on the identity of Cecily, this mysterious woman in the country. Financially, it was a bit hard to justify having a chorus which sang for 80 seconds, so I decided to have them pre-recorded, and they’re like a deus ex machina; they’re like a voice of the gods: suddenly they crash in and then they disappear.”

The disappearing chorus is one of the more minor oddities of the piece. Lady Bracknell is cast as a bass, because she was a character “who seemed to call for a gender change”. It’s not unusual for gender to be an issue in Barry’s operas. The Triumph of Beautyand Deceitis an all-male affair. The Bitter Tearsis all female. The characters in The Intelligence Parkinclude a composer who becomes infatuated with a castrato, who elopes with the woman the composer was supposed to marry.

But Barry is not at all interested in the idea of drag. “In a production I wouldn’t actually forbid a director to dress Lady Bracknell in something feminine, but I would find that boring. Drag is such a conventional way of doing things. For me it’s far more startling and shocking to have Lady Bracknell in a normal black suit. Once you give her some kind of wig or something, that immediately limits and reduces imaginatively the character.”

Barry’s Earnest has in effect three composers in the cast. “The opera opens offstage with Algernon playing the piano, and he’s playing his own extraordinary arrangement of Auld Lang Syne. Algernon is a radical composer. Lady Bracknell is also a composer: she sings her own setting of the text that Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony, Freude, schöner Götterfunken. And Miss Prism is also a composer, and she sings her setting in act II.”

The stratagems for what Barry calls getting around Wilde’s text include having the orchestra whistling and marching, and plate-smashing and gunshots from the percussion section.

“In the third act, when Dr Chasuble comes in and says, ‘Everything is quite ready for the christenings,’ the whole cast, tutti, with the whole orchestra, do these glissandi, vocal glissandi. That’s their response. It’s as if they’re suddenly like this mad menagerie in some zoo. Then when they finish the glissandi, he says, ‘Am I to understand that there are to be no christenings at all this afternoon?’ They do all the glissandi again. And then he says, ‘As your present mood seems to be one peculiarly secular, I will return to the church at once.’ As if these glissandi have told him that their mood is secular.

“And that is a leap I made across the Wilde: not to get bogged down in the details of someone talking about christenings being premature. That’s too much detail. To solve the moment with these surreal glissandi, as if they were a rational response to him, was in a way meeting Wilde head-on, playing him at his own surreal game, matching him.

“Likewise, for instance, at the beginning of the third act when Cecily and Gwendolen are at the window, looking out, and Jack and Algernon appear, the two girls speak together, ‘Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!’ I have the whole orchestra say that. And that is another way of avoiding getting bogged down in the micro-world of the Wilde text. It becomes like a congregation, the whole orchestra speaking as one voice.

“Those ways of approaching it lift it out of the molecular textual world, and paint it with very broad strokes which causes the audience to respond. What amazed me in LA was when people laughed. I was astonished.

“I remember I’d been placed sitting too near the orchestra, for some reason. And this woman said, ‘Oh, you must come and sit beside me.’ And she turned out to be Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the LA Phil. And I thought, no, this is the last person I want to sit beside: the most important person in the hall. How unnerving at the premiere. But in fact it was a great success. She laughed all the time. She laughed so much that I became paranoid when she wasn’t laughing. I got used to the idea that people found it so funny. I knew then that my stratagems had worked.”

There is a wait of nearly a year before Earnest will be heard again, on April 26th, 2012, at the Barbican Centre in London (which co-commissioned it) and two days later at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Before that, there’s tomorrow night’s performance of The Intelligence Park at Imma.

Strange as it may seem, money was the motivation for Barry’s first opera. He’d noticed in some Arts Council documentation that commissioning fees were higher for opera than for anything else, and he was so hard-up he decided to go for broke. He teamed up with Vincent Deane as librettist, and the commission came from the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He worked on the opera for longer than anything else in his output, nearly nine years in all, a stretching process that was facilitated by a premiere that was postponed again and again because of a shortage of funds.

Barry is clearly delighted at Imma’s decision to present his first opera of extremes again after, as he puts it, “21 years of silence, which seems to me just completely cruel, and unusual, and unjust. But it has had a virtual life on CD on the NMC label, so people can visit it in that way. I have never been more sure of anything than The Intelligence Park. I love every moment of it and always will.”

The difficulties The Intelligence Park faced have persisted into the 21st century. The first tenor to be engaged for the upcoming performance broke his contract. His replacement was deported from Britain for having broken visa regulations. The alto withdrew because of an essential hip operation. And the baritone fell through an attic ceiling and broke his shoulder, but he’s still going to sing. The show must go on.

Roderick Williams, John Daszak, Stephen Richardson, Sarah Gabriel, Andrew Watts, Loré Lixenberg and Gavin Jones perform The Intelligence Parkwith the Crash Ensemble under Richard Baker at Imma tomorrow