Composer Gerald Barry tells George Hall about discovering music as a child, cutting up Oscar Wilde for The Important of Being Earnest and falling down the rabbit hole with Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
Last autumn, Gerald Barry’s first opera – The Intelligence Park, written in 1990 – was successfully revived in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House. Next week, his most recent opera, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground from 2016, will open on the theatre’s main stage.
It’s a rare occurrence indeed for a living composer to have two works presented at Covent Garden during the same season, but the Irish composer, now 67, has become increasingly prominent in the opera world over the past few years. It seems a world away from his youth, growing up poor in a rural village in County Clare in the 1960s, where the little experience of music he had came through his parents’ radio.
“That was the only source of sound. There was no piano, record player, television, nothing,” he says. It was listening to that radio one night aged 11 or 12 that changed his life. “I remember randomly happening on a woman singing Handel’s Ombra Mai Fu and that was it.” At that moment he was struck by the power of music “and I became completely all-devouring”.
He found a woman living in a nearby town who gave piano lessons but he had no piano, which, he points out, “was a bit of a problem”. It was around this time he got hold of some vinyl records from a shop that also mended television sets and sold bicycles, but the family didn’t have a record player. “So I used to take the record from the sleeve and use my nose as a stylus and smell it round,” Barry says.
Music nevertheless became a passion and then an obsession. “I would study everything that was written on the back of the sleeve. In my imagination it built up into this amazing world of new things I longed for but didn’t have.” Eventually, he came to an agreement with his piano teacher that for half of each 30-minute lesson she would play his LPs to him, and for the other half she would teach him.
Barry says: ‘I finally managed to get some money and bought a record player, and I wore my mother down by crying until she became a wreck and we bought a second-hand piano. So I finally had a record player and a piano.”
As soon as he discovered music, Barry began to compose. “I would write all kinds of mad pastiches of Bach and Haydn and Mozart. I was doing it compulsively, so much so that when my mother said: ‘You must go to bed’ and would want to turn off the light, I’d still be writing like crazy.”
From these beginnings, he would go on to study at the National University in Dublin and eventually won scholarships to work with two leading lights of the contemporary avant-garde: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Nothing, what would make a difference? I have ecstasy, sadness, joy, despair and happiness already. Is there more?
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My life. What else can it be? Your history, emotional state, DNA, defines you and makes you see things in ways particular to you alone.
These days Barry enjoys an increasingly high international profile as a composer in many genres, though opera has come increasingly to the fore. His first, The Intelligence Park, premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in 1990. By librettist Vincent Deane, it was partly based on real events and set in 1753 in Dublin, where a visiting castrato elopes with the daughter of a judge. “I had absolutely no money,” Barry says, “and I saw that the most money you got for anything was for an opera: so I decided to write one.”
Barry’s highly distinctive musical style is present in this piece, with its manic vocal writing, high-energy orchestration and quirky sense of humour. He followed it up with The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, set to a libretto by playwright Meredith Oakes, which premiered four years later on Channel 4.
His more recent operas include The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play and film, and directed by Richard Jones at its stage premiere at English National Opera in 2005; and – both originally presented in Los Angeles – The Importance of Being Earnest in 2011, and Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which receives its first full-scale production by Antony McDonald at the ROH next month.
These days, rather than working with a librettist, Barry cuts the texts down himself. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, he removed two-thirds of the play, “which sounds like a terrible blasphemy, but my cutting brought it into focus”.
Barry’s approach to literary classics shows a huge respect for the original material, but he nevertheless feels free to add his own new and distinctly left-field elements. In his adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, for instance, there’s a notorious but extremely funny scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily, which is accompanied by the precisely notated smashing, by a percussionist, of 40 dinner plates; while in another characteristically idiosyncratic move, the role of Lady Bracknell is sung by a man singing bass, who is also dressed as a man.
Barry wasn’t immediately aware of what the impact of such interventions might be. “Take the plate-smashing thing. While I was writing it, I would laugh on my own; but when I was at the first performance in Los Angeles, I heard this noise in the audience and wondered if people were upset.” In fact, they were simply laughing. “When I got used to the idea I began to like it, and would become very watchful about their laughter, and was even upset if they weren’t laughing enough, or in the right places.”
The Importance of Being Earnest went on to major success, including winning the Royal Philharmonic Society award for large-scale composition and being seen in several productions in different locations, including in the Linbury in 2013. In some senses, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is a follow-up.
“I was lying in bed in a hotel in Birmingham before a concert performance of Earnest with an appalling cold. For some reason the subject came into my head, and so I got out of bed and went to a bookshop and bought a book called The Annotated Alice, which is full of wonderful things. The subject felt completely me, as if I were Alice. It has to be one of the most surreal things ever written.”
Barry’s distinctly quirky sense of humour can, he says, get him into terrible trouble. “I can’t stop it. It often happens without my even noticing. It’s what draws me to texts such as Earnest.”
He has returned to Oscar Wilde for his next opera, due to be unveiled in Los Angeles in April 2021 before coming to London later in the year. The subject is Salome – best known operatically in Richard Strauss’ lavish 1905 setting, with its famous (or maybe infamous) Dance of the Seven Veils, when the Judean princess dances lasciviously for her stepfather Herod and then demands the head of John the Baptist on a silver salver.
“I did an interview on Italian radio the other day, and the interviewer said: ‘You’re obviously not afraid of comparisons.’ Maybe I will completely fall flat on my face, but one can’t think of that.” Done by Gerald Barry, this will be a very different Salome very from Strauss’. “In my version, Salome doesn’t dance, she types – indeed she’s a virtuoso typist.”
Born: Clarehill, Clarecastle, County Clare, Ireland
Training: Studied with Mauricio Kagel and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne
• The Intelligence Park, Almeida, London (1990)
• The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit – Aldeburgh Festival/Berliner Festwochen (2001)
• The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, English National Opera/Theater Stadt Basel (2005)
• The Importance of Being Earnest, Northern Irish Opera/Irish National Opera; Fribourg/Paris (2013)
• La Plus Forte (The Stronger), Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (2019)
• Royal Philharmonic Society award for large-scale composition for The Importance of Being Earnest (2013)
Agent: Schott Music
Alice’s Adventures Under Ground runs at the Royal Opera House from February 3-9. For more information go to: roh.org.uk/tickets-and-events