The musical world of Gerald Barry: 'Like being attacked by knives'
A look at the Importance of Being Earnest composer's brilliant and bizarre back-catalogue.
Gerald Barry’s exuberant and brilliantly monstrous music sounds like nothing else. Described by one audience member as ‘like being attacked by knives or like being chased by a serial killer’, it’s grotesque, poignant and beautiful all at once, making Barry the perfect composer to adapt Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest for the operatic stage.
Barry was born in Clarecastle, Ireland in 1952 and in the late 1970s took up scholarships with Schrat, Stockhausen, Cerha and Kagel. Early works have a clear Barry stamp, one example being the disparate instruments in ‘____’ that spiral through an almost-unfamiliar scale selected from a chart showing the locations of 17th-century composer John Jenkins’s manuscripts, while Ø is scored for two pianos playing the same part at various octaves. This piece introduces Barry’s practice of adaptation through through bringing to the fore the non-harmonic passing notes that give melodies their particular thumbprint (here the unsuspecting victim is Irish folk-song Bonny Kate). Both works are distinguished by an air of meaningful nonsensicality.
Scholarships exhausted, Barry returned to Ireland in 1981 to begin his first opera, The Intelligence Park. It would take the best part of a decade to complete, during which time Barry’s interest in Baroque music qualities snowballed. The Intelligence Park is set in 1750s Dublin and is an opera about creating an opera. Composer Robert Paradies is struggling with his work and falls in love with his rich fiancée Jerusha’s singing teacher, the castrato Serafino. When Serafino elopes with Jerusha all hell breaks loose. So far, so operatic: but the music tightens the screws. Inspired by the ‘bizarre artificiality’ of his friend Vincent Dean’s libretto, Barry’s absurdist and beautiful work is largely based on abominated Bach chorales suspended through his now-signature acrobatic vocal lines.
Baroque inspiration continued in Barry’s second opera, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, commissioned by Channel 4 and updated from Handel’s oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth by librettist Meredith Oakes. The fiendish vocal lines of the cast of five male singers writhe between sweet lyricism and patter that, in Barry’s words, ‘should have the impact of a bullet’.
Barry’s next opera was for a cast of six women (of whom one is mute): The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which opened ENO‘s 2005/6 season. Here Barry took a more recent source, adapting Fassbinder’s 1970 play (and later film) word for word for the operatic stage. Barry’s fourth stage work, La Plus Forte (The Stronger), is a 20-minute miniature written for Barbara Hannigan (who recently performed at the Royal Opera House to acclaim in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin). As she put it: ‘Breathtaking! Brilliant! Horrendously difficult!’
Barry’s latest is The Importance of Being Earnest, receiving its UK stage premiere in the Linbury Studio Theatre in June. Algy’s insane ‘Auld Lang Syne’ opens the opera and stomps throughout it; Cecily and Gwendolyn’s filthy Sprechstimme argument is accompanied by the smashing of 40 plates (‘I asked myself what would be an expression of their anger and I suddenly thought of breaking things’); a basso profondo Lady Bracknell spits out Schiller when she gets excited; and the machine-gun-paced vocal lines heighten what Barry terms the ‘play’s kind of hysteria’. It’s exhilarating, demented and nightmarishly absurd; and, from Barry, we wouldn’t expect anything less.