Turning a text as iconic as The Importance of Being Earnest into an opera would intimidate even the most confident composer. But Christopher Morley speaks to an Irishman who relished every moment.
If anyone was going to have the temerity to turn Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, with its intimidating abundance of elegant one-liners, into an opera, it would have to be someone as independently-minded as the iconoclastic Irish composer Gerald Barry.
On Saturday his 90-minute distillation of Wilde’s great comedy of manners is given at Symphony Hall by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Thomas Ades conducting, following its European premiere at London’s Barbican on Thursday, and its world premiere a year ago in Los Angeles.
Gerald tells me what attracted him to the idea of turning his compatriot’s ‘Earnest’ into an opera. “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.”
The composer is well known for dealing with subjects of much stature, Beethoven among them. Does he tackle his material with any sense of trepidation, including here?
“People have asked me if it was intimidating setting such a famous text and if it was a challenge to be funny in the way the play is.
“I can only say that it isn’t a challenge at all. I never think of being funny and never set out to be. I just act. My body acts, my nervous system... Things just happen.
“When the audience laughed during the premiere in Los Angeles I was startled to begin with, I was 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.”
So Gerald obviously enjoyed compiling his own libretto, and he explains how musical ideas suggested themselves to him while he was writing the words.
“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” which everyone knows from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony... 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.”