Gerald Barry writes about his opera, The Importance of Being Earnest. The work receives its European premiere in London on 26 April 2012.
Copyright ©2012 Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland.
When Tom Adès and the Los Angeles Philharmonic asked me for something, I said The Importance of Being Earnest.
I've always loved Wilde's ecstatic sense of nonsense - like Alice in Wonderland in a way. Wilde has a dark uncaring humour, a 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.
Though I cut about two thirds of the play, I didn't cut any references to food and eating, and there are a lot of those in the original. 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 direction says "They pass into the house." It's eerie. You don't know what might happen. And when Lady Bracknell says "I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to be living entirely for pleasure now", the orchestra is suddenly hushed and dark. There is something unspeakable there.
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.
Setting it was hard and strange to begin and a joy after. At first I wondered how to manage 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 are like messages from the Gods.
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.
When Miss Prism is asked to identify the handbag, she goes into a withdrawn state of inspection, naturally humming the German national anthem, because Germany is crucial to her and Lady Bracknell.
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.
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 crying out, beyond words.
People have said to me that comedy is the hardest thing. I never think about that. I just act. My body acts, my nervous system. Things happen. When the audience laughed in LA I was startled to begin. I used to laugh alone at what I'd done, but it never occurred to me that my private laughter would become public.
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.
The tune Auld Lang Syne runs through the opera. Algernon plays his own setting of it offstage at the beginning. So there are three composers in the opera! I forgot about him.
The solo is prerecorded by me. It's really hard and I don't play it accurately. It was commissioned by Betty Freeman not long before she died. 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.
The various kinds of musics used in Earnest work in the way we ourselves feel, see, hear myriad things all the time which have no obvious connection. They are life.
In the use of those musics there is an underlying reason usually. 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 was true. I think the reason is something like: 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. 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.