Monday 25 September 2017

Witty, elegant, Wilde

Hysterically funny: Christopher Cull and Stephen Richardson in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Hysterically funny: Christopher Cull and Stephen Richardson in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Gerald Barry has written an opera of Wilde's famous play

Aedn Gormley

Hilarious is not a word we might immediately think of when attending a modern opera. However, this one was described by The Los Angeles Times as "hysterically funny". Well we are of course dealing with the wit of Oscar Wilde.

NI Opera and Wide Open Opera have teamed up to present the Irish premiere of Gerald Barry's opera The Importance of Being Earnest based on Oscar Wilde's play.

Gerald Barry was born in Co Clare in 1952 and this is his fifth opera. It has already enjoyed success in Los Angeles, France and London.

It would take a brave composer to take on this much-loved play but Gerald told me that it was a project he couldn't possibly turn down.

"It's such a famous play and a great masterpiece of the theatre. It's a very dangerous thing to take on because everyone knows it and agrees that it is this wonderful thing. You don't want to damage it or work at a level that is lower than it."

The first thing that strikes me looking through the cast list is that Lady Bracknell is played by a man! Yes, a deep bass baritone, Stephen Richardson. Gerald had written with Stephen in mind and feels very at home with the bass voice. "I simply thought of Lady Bracknell as a man and not in a camp, drag or pantomime way but simply as a man."

Gerald cut two-thirds of the text, which might sound excessive but he believes those who have never read the play will not notice the cuts. He praised the strength of the original structure of the play. "It's like I have the bones of the play; I've got the X-ray without the flesh."

So let me ask the big question, what of the famous line uttered by Lady Bracknell; "A handbag!" Gerald admits that it was a tricky one, but yes, this line is kept, in fact Lady Bracknell says it twice. The composer felt it was too good a moment not to have twice over. The line is delivered in a particular way, really conveying the disgust the character feels, but I won't spoil that for you.

Gerald has certainly come up with some intriguing ways in which to adapt this play. In the scene between Cecily and Gwendolen, where they hurl insults at one another, he wanted to come up with a suitable way to convey their anger. For starters, their duet is sung through two mega-phones. But that's not all – plates are also smashed.

"I thought, what is an expression of anger? And I thought breaking things is and that's why I have the smashing of 42 plates in that particular scene. The plate smashing is precisely notated with a certain rhythm, it's almost like some ritualised form of violence," says Barry.

I think we can safely say that this is no ordinary opera. The composer seems genuinely excited about seeing this opera staged in his home country. Surely with such positive reaction to his opera so far, he won't have first-night nerves here?

"It's always very unnerving and often I'd like to be somewhere else. I like to sit in the front row, not in the middle of the theatre where you see other people and you wonder if they are enjoying it or not, but if you sit in the front row you can't see anybody, all you can see are the people on stage."

And what would Oscar Wilde make of it? "Having sat through the first rehearsals in Belfast, Oscar would have loved it, it is witty and elegant and delightful."

NI Opera & Wide Open Opera present The Importance of Being Earnest, A new opera by Gerald Barry tonight at The Cork Opera House and Nov 8 and 9 at The Gaiety Theatre Dublin. See www.wideopenopera.com

Irish Independent

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