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Work of the Week: Gerald Barry – Alice’s Adventures Under Ground

On 28 November, the European premiere of Gerald Barry’s new opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground will be given in a concert performance with Britten Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Adès. The performance at London’s Barbican Centre closely follows the world premiere in Los Angeles on 22 November with Adès conducting members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Both performances are sung by a distinguished cast led by Barbara Hannigan in the title role, with Allison Cook, Hilary Summers, Allan Clayton, Peter Tantsits, Mark Stone, and Joshua Bloom.

Barry’s previous opera The Importance of Being Earnest (2009-10) has been widely performed to sold-out audiences and is heralded as a masterpiece of modern opera. The similarly subversive Victorian classics of Lewis Carroll’s two beloved novels “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” were, to Barry, an obvious choice for the subject of his next opera.

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground by Gerald Barry – Down the rabbit hole

In the same manner as the books, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground begins with Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In the opera, this becomes an occasion for a masterclass in singing: as she falls, Alice competes with the orchestra for who can perform the best scales and arpeggios. Such vocal acrobatics have been written primarily for the deftly agile voice of Barbara Hannigan, with whom Barry has a longstanding collaboration. A second virtuosic masterclass occurs at the Red Queen’s croquet lawn. Barry explains his emphasis on virtuosic technique:

The book is very dramatic, and is an ideal vehicle for divas, male or female. It’s tremendous material for showing off – it takes these unbelievable things for granted, viewing them as normal. – Gerald Barry

In his vocal compositions Barry has often played with language, and Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is no exception. The composer wrote the libretto himself, cutting down to the very core of Carroll’s stories and making them even more surreal and funny. One of the best-known passages from Carroll’s Alice, the Jabberwocky, appears in no fewer than five languages. For Barry, the feverish linguistic whirlwind of Alice’s libretto reflects the original madness of Carroll’s texts. Barry also chose to use the book’s original title, rather than “Alice in Wonderland”, to mirror the slightly darker madness of the opera.

I love the original title as it combines light and dark and more truly reflects the white and black energy at the heart of the work. It is this careering between ecstatic nonsense and violence which has made the text timeless and grips generation after generation. – Gerald Barry

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground will receive its Irish premiere with Adès conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in the New Music Dublin Festival on 4 March 2017. Further upcoming premieres for Barry include a new work for chorus and orchestra, Humiliated and Insulted, on 10 February 2017 with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir, and 5-6 May 2017 with Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus.