FOLLOWING its premiere in Los Angeles in 2011, Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest was hailed as a masterpiece. Barry’s wildly inventive and idiosyncratic setting of Wilde’s classic play looks set to achieve that rare distinction — a modern opera that will become part of the standard repertoire.
The operatic world waited with anticipation to see what Barry would do next. They didn’t have to wait too long. While in Birmingham for a performance of Earnest in 2012, the composer suddenly realised what his next project would be.
“The idea came to me randomly,” he explains over coffee and custard pies in his cosy red-bricked house in Dublin City. “I immediately hopped out of bed in my hotel room and made my way to a book shop and purchased a copy of The Annotated Alice. It is the next logical step to Earnest. It is has the same sense of nonsense and exactly the same surreality. Just as Wilde turns everything on its head, Lewis Carroll does just the same.”
Alice’s Adventures Under Ground will be given an Irish premiere following performances in LA and London last November. The performance is one of the highlights of an ambitious four-day festival of modern music to be performed at the National Concert Hall this weekend.
Alice is the sixth operatic work from the pen of a man generally agreed to be Ireland’s most successful living composer. Barry’s journey from the periphery of the classical music world in the west of Ireland to become one of the most feted composers on the international scene is a remarkable one.
Growing up in the 1950s, Barry, from Clarecastle, Co Clare, recalls a different era, when music wasn’t ever-present as it is in today’s world. “We didn’t have a record player. Radio was the only recorded sound I heard. Hearing live music was always a special experience. The very first music I remember hearing was in church.”
He discovered the organ, and with the encouragement of Kieran O’Gorman, a musical priest at St Flannan’s in Ennis, he haunted the local churches for opportunities to practise. Not always to general delight, however, and Barry recalls with wry amusement the threats of disgruntled sacristans.
One can guess that there were hints of his unorthodox style echoing in the aisles in Ennis Pro Cathedral when a young Gerald Barry sat at the console.
His uncle Paddy Murphy was a well-known concertina player and Barry fondly recalls hearing him play at the fireside on evenings spent at his home in west Clare.
He was the only boy in his year to sit Leaving Certificate music at St Flannan’s College. When he wrote to the professors of music in Dublin to ask them to come and see him, it was clear that he had an extraordinary sense of his future.
Come they did and Barry duly graduated from UCD before departing for post-graduate studies in Germany where he studied with leading lights of the avant-garde, surviving by playing organ in local churches.
Arriving back in Dublin in the 1980s, Barry applied himself to earning his living as a composer. He set about writing an opera on discovering that this was the genre commanding the best fee for new commissions. The Intelligence Park, set in Dublin in 1753, was premiered in London in 1990. Barry’s high-voltage score both puzzled and exhilarated the musical establishment and paved the way for more ambitious efforts.
When Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit aired on Channel 4, a young British composer, Thomas Ades, was captivated. He would later begin an ongoing collaboration with Barry. Ades conducted the premiere of Alice in LA and London, and will be at the helm in Dublin. The four-day festival of new music at the NCH has been devised by the pair with an emphasis on choral and operatic works.
In Dublin, soprano Claudia Boyle will take on the role of Alice. “Claudia was the obvious choice. She is a wonderful soprano.” Barry has specific demands: “I need my performers to be versatile. I need someone who can act and is able to speak well, too.”
The RTÉ Concert Orchestra will be supplemented with some unusual instruments on the night. Barry describes the wind machines with gleeful enthusiasm — big barrel-shaped instruments with handles that turn to make the sound that have been used since the 19th century.
Barry says he is thrilled and terrified at the prospect of having his work premiered in Dublin. He will, for the first time in years, be venturing on to the platform himself when he joins Ades to perform a set of chorales from ‘The Intelligence Park’ arranged for piano duet. “It can be scarier to perform at home. I’ve heard singers say they feel a little more vulnerable performing in their own countries and I can understand that.”
If you do venture down the rabbit hole you can expect to be delightfully shocked but not bored. With a running time of around an hour, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground won’t be a long sit. “I don’t think people will feel short-changed. It will be an intense experience. There is a kind of hysterical delirium in the music that a lot of people will love,” says Barry.
New Music Dublin: Other highlights