31 Mar 2012

Gerald Barry: The Importance of Being Earnest

Irish composer Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest premieres at the Barbican, London on April 26th. It is a joint commission between the Barbican and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The decision to set a play as well-known as The Importance of Being Earnest cannot have been easy, surely, given the famous nature of the text. Was it intimidating? Or stimulating? ”It was hard and strange to begin and a joy after.When I began I wondered how to manage famous lines like “A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.”I decided to treat them as Chorales sung by a choir, like in the St Matthew Passion, or like slogans held up by protestors. But having used the choir for about 90 seconds, I saw the text more clearly and dispensed with them. That’s why they only appear in Act 1 and never again.They are prerecorded and come across like messages from the Gods.”

I notice, in connection with this, that you famously set another famous text, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, for English National Orchestra. “Yes it’s a wonderful text as well. It’s at Wilde’s level. It also is structurally sound and has a wonderful directness. No false note there.” The work (The Importance of Being Earnest) was written in 2009/10, I believe, and the Los Angeles performance was a great success. There is a delicious sense of humour running through your writing (the glissando-like up and down runs of the opening of act 3, for example), and a lightness of touch, both in the handling of the material itself as well as in the scoring. This is perhaps not associated too often with ‘modern’ music…I ask how Finnissy brought about the musical equivalent to Wilde’s absurdist text?. “Well, I’ve always loved Wilde’s ecstatic sense of nonsense — like Alice in Wonderland in a way. In Wilde there’s a dark uncaring humour, complete disregard for convention, delight in lying — and that’s my home.I don’t know if it’s an Irish thing or not — all I know is, it’s all I know.”

You have Thomas Adès conducting the Barbican performance (as he did, of course, the Los Angeles one). How does it feel to have another composer conducting your work? Is it true (in Adès’ case) that this brings extra insights (people frequently say that about Boulez, for example).

“When Tom is conducting I feel completely safe. In fact, when it’s a project initiated (I nearly said ignited — but it’s a good word) by him, it calls forth from me an extra energy. There’s a thing of entrails in operation when Tom is involved. He’s inspiring. He was born that way.”

There is a lyricism as well as bold humour here too in the music. As he re-read the play in preparation for the composition of this work, what were Barry’s reactions? What kind of processes did these reactions go through to find their way to the finished score?. “Well, various things presented themselves. For instance, both Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism are Germanophiles, so I made them composers. They both get to sing their own settings of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and when Lady Bracknell gets carried away, she naturally breaks into German. By the third act, Lady Bracknell is more unhinged. She can focus, and ask questions, but if the answers are more than her brain can bear, she ignores them and goes on to something else.

“When Miss Prism is asked to identify the handbag, she goes into a withdrawn state of inspection, naturally humming the German national anthem as she does so, because Germany is crucial to her and Lady Bracknell.”

I comment that actors often say that comedy is one of the hardest parts of their art; would you say the same is true, musically, too? That, especially creating humour under a modernist aesthetic, is a challenge indeed? “It isn’t a challenge at all. I never think of being funny and never set out to be. I never think of aesthetics, or of anything at all. I just act. My body acts, my nervous system. Things just happen. When the audience laughed in LA I was startled to begin with — thrown. I know that sounds odd. I used to laugh alone at what I’d done. But it never occurred to me that my solitary laughter would become a public thing.

“In the scene in Act 2 between Cecily and Gwendolen, where they hurl insults at one another, 40 dinner plates are broken. I thought, apart from killing someone, what’s a good expression of anger?. And, of course, breaking things is one. So that’s how that came about. And because viciousness and fascism are one, I use hobnailed marching jack boots as well. And as I felt more was needed, I have the girls shoot one another at the end of the scene. Having done so they just go on to have afternoon tea, because they are as The Undead.” I comment that Barry is good at comedy, though: the LA Times blog (Culture Monster) called your second opera, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, written for Channel Four TV, “Non-stop nuttiness”

“People who don’t know one another have said that kind of thing for decades so it must be true” comes the reply. Talking of which, I can’t help wondering about how US audiences coped with a dialogue about cucumber sandwiches…especially one set to angular dodecaphony…

“As far as I remember, even though I cut about two thirds of the play, I didn’t cut any reference to food and eating. And there are a lot of those in the original. So in my version they loom even larger. The men are as interested in food as they are in the women. There’s a strange moment when Cecily meets Algernon for the first time in Act 2, and out of the blue he says, “I am hungry”. The stage directions says “They pass into the house.” It’s eerie. You don’t quite know what might happen. I love the moment in Act 1 when Lady Bracknell says “I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to be living entirely for pleasure now”, and the orchestra is suddenly hushed and dark. There is something unspeakable there.”

Regarding Barry’s musical language, I point out that although he uses twelve-tone techniques, this seems to be but one part of his armoury. There’s no mistaking the modernism of the keyboard opening — and how it incorporates Auld Lang Syne is delightful (as well as the comedy of the line “I don’t play accurately”...) The compositional challenge, it strikes me, is how to incorporate the variety of techniques you use into a coherent musico-dramatic whole. How did he craft this?

“I play that solo myself. It’s really hard and I don’t play it accurately! I was glad to be in one piece by the end. I was barely hanging on. I recorded it in one take the night before I went to LA for the premiere and got into a panic because I thought I wouldn’t make it because I hadn’t trained enough. I wasn’t fit at all. That solo was commissioned by my friend Betty Freeman before she died. I miss her and think of her a lot.

“I have a weird piano technique. I studied with an old lady in the west of Ireland, and then I met another old lady who was a pupil of Alfred Cortot’s so I received Cortot’s spirit from her hands! I use “Auld Lang Syne” like I might use a cup to drink out of. In the opera it’s an object surrounded by a whirling parallel world removed from it. They move together but have nothing to do with one another. The tune is the basis of the love duet between Jack and Gwendolen, and the duet between Jack and Algernon, and is usually used by the butlers Lane and Merriman to announce people. So it’s a structural pillar of a kind. About incorporating varieties of techniques or musics. These are really no more than a mirror to the circus of life. They work in the way we ourselves feel, see, hear, myriad things all the time which have no obvious connection. They are life.

“There are various kinds of musics used in Earnest — in that I think of musical history as mine, and roam in it where I will. But in the use of those musics there is an underlying reason each time. Instead of the so-called serial music after the beginning of the opera, I had originally written profound (of course!) music and when I put it together with the text, it sounded fake. And when I substituted the ‘fake’ serial music, it sounded funny and original. I think the reason is something like this: Wilde’s text is fantastically artificial, and when I went into overdrive to match it with similar originality, it was too heartfelt and became mawkish/sentimental. It betrayed Wilde’s text — making it ordinary. The tension disappeared. When I matched Wilde’s artificiality, with highly ‘contrived’ serialism, both were at home with one another, and there was no false note. One was as fake (artificial) as the other. They were happily surreal together.

“Maybe it’s that Wilde + Conventional Emotion is less good than Wilde + Artifice. And considering that there is so much deceit in the play, and his own life being filled with it, my fake serialism was truer to his world of fakery.”

I hear quite a lot of Straninskian sonorities and gestures in this work, too (the repeated note gesture heard at various points, including punctuating the patter-setting setting of the Ode to Joy, seems a case in point). Am I right in identifying this influence, and if so can you outline why he is important to you? Can you identify any other influences or references in your score? “You could be right in mentioning Stravinsky. I love him obviously. Who doesn’t?. But I don’t think about that when I’m writing. If by chance I regurgitated one of his atmospheres and did it honourably, I would be happy.” This is Barry’s fifth opera — and I assume not his last, given Earnest’s success. How does he see opera, as an art-form? An arena in which to explore a multitude of emotions (comedy, in this instance?). A still-vibrant art-form? “Opera is what it always was and will be. Nothing is ever in crisis. The only things that are ever in crisis are the people who use the forms. If there’s ever any weakness in anything, it’s the author’s fault. People who speak of the death of things talk rubbish. Everything remains the same. Everything is always the same. Nothing changes. All there are, are different levels of imagination, and that has always been the case. There is no advance imaginatively from Piero della Francesca to Wagner. They are both at the highest level and are therefore both the same. That’s all that matters. Any other considerations are footnotes.” I notice Barry created the libretto himself, taking Wilde as your starting point of course. But he had to make cuts, obviously — how hard was this, given the strength of Wilde’s play as an entity in itself? What did you cut, and why?

“I cut two thirds of the text. But I would say, that if you’d never read the play before, and read my remaining third, you wouldn’t know anything was missing. It shows how strong Wilde’s structure is. The play’s bones are unshatterable. My version is an X-ray of it.I enter into the play’s madness in varying degrees throughout. One of them is where Dr Chasuble says “Everything is quite ready for the christenings”. Instead of Wilde’s text in response to Chasuble, the whole cast respond with repeated vocal glissandi. They are like a menagerie, animals who cry out, beyond words.”

And finally, did Barry fashion any of the various vocal parts with specific singers in mind? “I did think of Barbara Hannigan — it’s rare that I don’t think of her!. Because she has a glorious high D, I gave her one as a present for her last note in the opera.”

For more details please see here.

The Birmingham premiere will take place on 28th April at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Colin Stuart Clarke