On a sunny Friday morning in London I meet Gerald Barry to discuss his latest opera, The Importance of Being Earnest. Earnest has its UK premiere at the Barbican on 26 April, performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Tom Adès, with a repeat performance in Birmingham on 28 April. Barry in person is courteous, down to earth, and debonair, alongside which his seriousness towards his vocation is always clear.
I open by asking Barry what attracted him to setting The Importance of Being Earnest as an opera. 'It's something that stands alone in time and came out of nowhere,' Barry says of the play's appearance in 1895. 'It's as if all the energy in Wilde happened to come unwittingly together at that time, which enabled him to do this extraordinary thing which was then unrepeatable. So it has that mysterious quality. Perhaps the only other thing it could be compared to in a way is Alice in Wonderland. There's the same sense of nonsense.'
Proximity of sense and nonsense has, of course, been a hallmark of Barry's style in works like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, given its world premiere production by English National Opera in 2005. In this respect The Importance of Being Earnest seems a logical text for Barry to explore in operatic form. Barry's Earnest certainly does justice to the dry delirium of Wilde's original. One scene sees a supply of crockery being smashed in rhythm to the notes of a vocal solo. Lady Bracknell, the hardy society Madame of the play, has here been cast as a bass. For Barry, aspects such as these chime in sympathy with the original play's power for 'standing everything on its head – you know, just the delight, the utter ecstatic delight in nonsense.'
Given the play's singular nature, was it daunting to have to fashion it into an opera? 'It was quite scary,' Barry agrees. 'Because it’s such a famous, cut-glass text, you know, and you wonder what on earth you could bring to it. But when the LA Phil asked me to do something for them, it was one of the things I proposed to them – hoping actually they wouldn't take it, because I suddenly thought, "This is too crazy to attempt this".' But accept it they did, owing in part perhaps to a happy historical resonance: the LA Philharmonic's founder, William Andrews Clark Junior, also founded the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, where he amassed the largest collection of original Wilde material in the world.
'So I had to solve it,' Barry continues, 'and I wrote it in a very short time. Or for me anyway it was a very short time, about 90 minutes of music that I wrote in about 18 months, you know, which is not very long really for me. So it all had to be solved very quickly. It was quite a feverish thing, managing that. And so maybe it was good actually that I was forced to do it in such a short time, because there just wasn't time to be terrified about it – it simply had to be done.'
What set Barry's imaginative cogs in motion were the play's many references to music. When the curtain goes up Algernon is bashing around on a piano offstage, displaying little musical aptitude. 'I've made my own setting of "Auld Lang Syne", which Algernon plays offstage. I recorded it myself and it's pre-recorded, but you hear it offstage. Then he comes in. Lane is the butler and is offering him tea. And he says to Lane, "Did you hear what I was playing?" And Lane says, "No". And he says, "I'm sorry, I don't play accurately. Sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life." But it's very good actually,' Barry adds, 'because I make loads of mistakes in the recording!' In the play, the character Miss Prism is an author of sentimental novels. In Barry's opera she has become a composer, as has Lady Bracknell (played, you'll remember, by a bass).
'Lady Bracknell says that in German songs German sounds "a thoroughly respectable language". I've taken that as my cue, and I decided that Lady Bracknell's house was a real Germanophile house. I've made her and Miss Prism composers, and they both in the opera sing their own settings of "Freude, schöner Götterfunken" [the 'Ode to Joy' from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony],' Barry laughs. 'They seize the moment to insert their own compositions. There's a moment in the third act where Lady Bracknell is looking at Cecily and her profile, and she goes into an ecstasy about how Cecily looks, and her bone structure, and she does it all in German… as if it was suddenly a moment out of Nuremburg, one of the rallies or something! So I have introduced things like that.'
The Importance of Being Earnest went down well at its world premiere last year in LA. Mark Swed of the LA Times called the opera) the most 'exciting new opera in L.A. in 2011, and maybe anywhere;' though predictably there was the odd walk-out among the more traditionally-minded in the audience. ENO's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant drew similarly divided reactions, with its manic discourse and musical angularity. But things are calmer in The Importance of Being Earnest.
'In many ways it's probably the most straightforward in terms of musical language and vocal writing. It's the most straightforward of the operas I've written. I mean it's not easy, there are some really difficult things in it. But nobody complained for instance in LA, which is kind of unusual!' Barry opera ranges fearlessly over the different terrains of today's musical landscape. 'It's very all-embracing in terms of kinds of music used. There's some music you might hear in nineteenth century music hall, and there's some music that's fake serialism, and there is then my own music.' This reflects Barry's characteristically free, anti-academic approach to composition. 'I've always thought that many composers are too imprisoned by their notion of how things should be. They have received notions from education and from what they've learned, how things should be, and if possible I try to step outside that.'
During his student days, Barry studied with Stockhausen – 'a distant figure, rather cold. I didn't warm to him, but of course I had immense respect for him' – and with Mauricio Kagel, whom Barry remembers fondly. As well as exposing Barry to the currents of the post-war avant-garde, it also gave him time to reflect on his own aesthetic alongside the other young composers he met. 'When I lived in Cologne in the 1970s, myself and two other composers, Chris Newman and Kevin Volans, founded a society called The Society for Newer Music. We never did anything – but we wrote a manifesto!' he laughs. 'The manifesto said something grand, like that we considered all music to be ours,' says Barry (unconsciously echoing Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses), 'and that our aim was to write music with a sense of wonder. And it’s quite good that, actually. That is something that has stayed with me all my life.'
'The main thing is to write music with a sense of wonder, music that will always be – whenever you hear it, even if you hear a piece many times – that will always be like a messenger coming to you with fresh news, just as is the case when you hear something by Schubert. There's something mysterious sown into the fabric of the music, which gives it an unnameable quality.'
Barry's early encounters with music were inauspicious. Growing up in County Clare in rural Ireland, he had little exposure to music at all. 'In our house there was absolutely nothing. We had no money, hardly. No record player, no piano, no television, nothing….The only music in my family was my uncle Paddy Murphy, who was a famous concertina player from County Clare, and that was the only music really. And then hearing music in the church, you know.' It was the radio that eventually opened Barry up to the world of music. 'The thing that was the lightning flash for me, in terms of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, would have been an aria from a Handel opera, from Xerxes maybe, that I heard on the radio. I heard this woman singing this, and bang – my head went. And that was how I discovered music.'
I ask Barry whether, with Earnest being a major opera by one of Ireland's foremost artists, and a text by one of Ireland's foremost literary figures of yesteryear, we might expect an Irish production in the not-too-distant future. Although warm to the idea, he remains non-committal. 'I would have thought somebody would want to put on, to do a staging of The Importance of Being Earnest, you know…. We'll see.'
Projects in the pipeline include a piano concerto, to be premiered by UK pianist Nicholas Hodges in Munich at Musica Viva in late 2013 with the Bavarian State Orchestra. For the moment, though, it's all about Earnest. English audiences will be lucky to be among the first to catch this new opera by one of the world's best opera composers. I ask Barry if changes have been made to the score following the world premiere.
'Yes. I made some small cuts in LA. There was very little rehearsal in LA and everything happened very quickly. And so you had to make decisions on the wing. And when you felt the timing right, and thinking of Wilde's impeccable timing and living up to that… if there were some moments when I felt the energy was leaking from a moment, you know, I would make a cut. And then I began to make so many cuts that Tom Adès said, "You must stop making so many cuts – you’re becoming self-harming!"' he laughs. 'But it's very hard to make the judgement about a definite versions of the opera until you see a staging. Because a concert performance is quite different form a staging. With a wonderful director, he might relish more time to do things onstage, which these cuts, if you put them back in, would allow. So that's a difficult one, actually. I have to wait to see a staging before I absolutely decide on the definitive version.'
Such a staging will be anticipated, but Barry prefers not to be hung up on present limitations. 'You know, the main thing is to know that you've been honourable in sound, and not betrayed it. And that is the main thing. Whether the world recognises that or not is almost nothing to do with me.'
By Liam Cagney
Photos: Gerald Barry © Katie Henfry; Gerald Barry © Betty Freeman; Thomas Adè © Brian Voce
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum