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Gerald Barry (b1952)

Alice's adventures under ground

Irish National Opera, Irish Chamber Orchestra, André de Ridder (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2021
University Concert Hall, Limerick, Ireland
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Eduardo Prado
Release date: November 2021
Total duration: 53 minutes 14 seconds

Alice Claudia Boyle soprano
Red Queen, Queen of Hearts, Duchess, Mock Turtle, Passenger 1, Oyster 1 Clare Presland mezzo-soprano
White Queen, Dormouse, Tiger Lily, Mock Turtle, Cook, Passenger 2, Oyster 2 Hilary Summers contralto
White King, White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Tweedledum, Frog Footman, Fawn, Bottle 1, Cake 2, Baby 1, Passenger 3, Daisy 1 Gavan Ring tenor
March Hare, Tweedledee, Fish Footman, Guard, Messenger, Bottle 2, Cake 1, Baby 2, Passenger 4, Daisy 2 Peter Tantsits tenor
White Knight, Cheshire Cat, Soldier, Bottle 3, Cake 3, Baby 3, Oyster 3, Passenger 5, Daisy 3 Stephen Richardson bass-baritone
Humpty Dumpty, King of Hearts, Red Knight, Bottle 4, Cake 4, Baby 4, Oyster 4, Passenger 6, Daisy 4 Alan Ewing bass

Take to your seats to enjoy what must be one of the most exhausting (whether for the audience or for the cast) of all operas as Gerald Barry takes us on white-knuckle ride through Alice's Wonderland, turning it into a kaleidoscopic musical playground that is at once enticing, transfixing, shocking, disturbing and provoking of the deepest of belly laughs: a trait all too rare in contemporary music.

Who is Alice?
To understand the background to the Alice books, it’s helpful to consider the class system which dominated Victorian life. Little ‘Alice‛, born in 1852, was the second daughter of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, who held one of the highest social positions in Oxford. His wife was a formidable woman who managed a huge budget to run the Dean’s home and entertain his distinguished visitors. Part of her role was to organize advantageous marriages for her daughters, and it was hoped that Alice and her sisters would eventually marry into the aristocracy—or even royalty. Indeed, at one time it looked as if Alice might marry Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold.

Carroll was 20 years old when Alice Liddell was born, and during her childhood he worked in a junior teaching role in the university. He had neither good connections nor financial prospects, so would never have been considered as a husband for any of the Liddell girls. But he was very popular with children and had always loved entertaining his many sisters and brothers. Mrs Liddell liked him, and let him make friends with her four oldest children, Henry, Lorina, Alice and Edith, when they were young. Carroll taught them games and took them on outings with his brother Wilfred, or with friends, during which he often told them stories. It was in July 1862, when Alice was ten, that he first began to tell her, Lorina, Edith and his friend Robinson Duckworth the story of ‘Wonderland’.

Alice was a lively and confident little girl, and Carroll was very fond of her, but there are no contemporary suggestions that she played a major part in his life. The relationship with the children lasted till summer 1863, when Mrs Liddell became concerned at local gossip suggesting that Carroll was using his friendship with the children as a means to court their governess, or alternatively, that he was angling to marry Lorina, who was by then 14 and on the brink of entering the highly competitive marriage market. Any breath of controversy could compromise the eligibility of all the girls, so Mrs Liddell asked Carroll to stay away from the family for a while. He accepted this, and stayed away for a year or so, after which his friendship with the Liddells was resumed on a more distant and formal level.

In late 1864, when Alice was 12, Carroll sent her the original Wonderland story, which he had written out and illustrated. The volume was accepted and displayed in the family home for guests to read, but at that time, children’s stories were not taken seriously at all. Neither the Liddells nor Carroll publicized the connection, and Mrs Liddell did not consider that the Alice books were worth a mention in the Dean’s biography, which she commissioned after his death.

After Alice grew up, she confided to her three children that she was the original of the girl in the story book, but didn’t tell anyone else. However, when she was in her eighties, her son persuaded her to reveal her secret to the world, and she seems to have enjoyed doing so.

Alice in Wonderland
The Wonderland story was told over at least two days. Alice had the main role in the story, but her two sisters, as well as Carroll and Duckworth, made disguised appearances swimming about in Alice's Pool of Tears: Edith was the Eagle, Lorina was the Lory, Carroll (under his real name of ‘Dodgson’) was the Dodo, and Duckworth was the Duck. The book is a succession of dreamlike encounters with odd fairytale characters in curious locations, with many references to people, places and songs that the children knew. These include the ‘treacle well’ (healing-well) at Binsey, which they had visited, and the song ‘Beautiful Soup’, based on ‘Star of the Evening, Beautiful Star’, which they could sing.

While Carroll was writing the story out for Alice, he showed it to friends, who urged him to publish it commercially. He liked the idea, so he lengthened the story by adding the Mad Tea Party, the Frog and Fish Footmen and the Duchess and Pig, as well as some smaller changes, and commissioned the political cartoonist John Tenniel to illustrate it. Publication was scheduled for 1865, but for technical reasons the first edition did not go on sale until 1866.

Carroll genuinely considered his story to be a simple fairytale, but its interesting use of language, logical conundrums, amusing parodies and unsettling undertones quickly attracted readers of all ages, for many different reasons. The original text is still in print and widely available in scores of different languages.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Carroll decided to write a follow-up ‘Alice’ story based on a chessboard, but the writing went slowly at first. In 1869, his father died suddenly, an event that he described as the worst blow of his life, and he immediately became head of the family. This included responsibility for his ten adult siblings, none of whom had a proper job or a permanent home. It was an exhausting and distressing time, and it is interesting that he chose it to work on completing Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Once more, Tenniel was the illustrator, and the book was published in 1871.

Some parts of Looking-Glass, notably the scenes after Alice becomes a Queen, seem to reflect Carroll’s acute stress and anxiety at the time, and many readers have noted the preoccupation with death in the book. Towards the end, the story descends into frightening chaos, with elements suggestive of a Victorian séance. At this point, Alice bravely takes control and delivers herself back to a reassuringly normal life.

The lasting legacy of Lewis Carroll
Alice and her world have inspired countless creative works, adaptations and spinoffs, and more examples continue to appear in the fields of music, fashion, photography, dance and gaming, and in all kinds of themed events and attractions. Hundreds of translators have pitted themselves against the books’ multi-layered texts, and innumerable artists, including Arthur Rackham, Tove Jansson, Peter Blake and Yayoi Kusama have illustrated the stories; Salvador Dalí’s set of huge Alice prints, which include a depiction of a soft watch, are among the most striking. The original Tenniel illustrations are still very popular, and also the most interesting, for they precisely illustrate what Carroll himself thought everything should look like—including a fair-haired ‘Alice’ who looked nothing at all like Alice Liddell. In fact, Carroll supervised Tenniel so closely and relentlessly, that at first Tenniel refused to illustrate Looking-Glass for him. He was eventually persuaded to do so, but afterwards, he revealed, he somehow lost the taste for illustrating books for ever!

Jenny Woolf © 2021
author of The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, a thematic biography published in 2010 by St Martin’s Press New York and Haus UK. A revised edition was published in the UK in 2015

Opera that breaks all the rules
What would you bring with you to a tea party? Maybe some fondant fancies? Perhaps freshly baked scones? Gerald Barry brings warbling cakes, a barbershop quartet of babies and a contralto dormouse to his, which—for a composer whose operas infamously include plate-smashing and megaphones—is hardly surprising. Barry’s artistic voice is shocking, enchanting and often downright weird. He revels in contrasting the hilariously absurd with the heart-wrenchingly beautiful to create a surreal musical language that is perfectly suited to the fantasy world of Lewis Carroll.

From the moment the Mad Hatter stumbles onto the stage, we are immersed in a kaleidoscopic musical playground that is at once enticing, transfixing, shocking, disturbing and provoking of the deepest of belly laughs: a trait all too rare in contemporary music. This is opera that breaks all the rules. Singers are pushed to the extremes of their ranges, most notably in the role of Alice, whose dizzying tightrope of a part contains an astonishing 98 top Cs, of which 30 occur in the first minute of music! Supersonic tongue-twisters (particularly in the virtuoso croquet lesson) and moments of extreme vocal stamina leave us in awe, as we watch while Barry, with an anarchic twinkle in his eye, takes apart the very building blocks of operatic singing before deftly rebuilding them into something fantastical and new.

Barry ‘s treatment of the text is charmingly mischievous, obsessing over an obfuscation and restructuring of language that rivals even Lewis Carroll himself. By going against the grain of the words through unnatural rhythms, accentuations and repetitions—so far from textbook that it has even been described as ‘clumsy’—Barry subverts Carroll’s language in order to reveal something new in it, prompting us to engage with the words in a different way (for example Humpty Dumpty recounting his tragic tale to an ironic rendition of Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy'). Phrases that are too ludicrous or shocking to be uttered in the real world are rendered into sound through extended vocal techniques—speaking, shouting, growling, whispering, squealing and so on—that short-circuit all rationality to penetrate straight to our emotional core. ‘I’ve done all the screaming already’, gasps an exhausted Alice, recalling the mute character of Marlene at the end of Barry’s earlier opera, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, whose choked-up silence is less an absence of speech than a liberation from the claustrophobic entrapment of the world around her. Clearly a recurrent theme.

Like the Cheshire Cat, who leaves just a ghostly, enigmatic grin behind him, the melodic profile of this music is both curiously familiar and strangely disorientating. Quixotic allusions to recognizable works appear and disappear in a dreamlike way, as Baroque dances punctuated by Stravinsky-like ‘wrong notes’ rub shoulders with Romantic orchestral tone poems and riotous parlour songs. Familiar points of reference are completely turned on their head through stylistic dislocation, like a strange childhood game that no one told us the rules for. Whether by re-imagining a delicate chorus of daisies as a series of fortissimo barks or underscoring the dramatic fight between the Red and White Knights with a fragile and melancholic waltz, our expectations are constantly thwarted. There is a similar sort of bizarre, dream-like logic to much of the musical narrative. Carroll’s famous Jabberwocky poem appears three times in Barry’s topsy-turvy libretto: retold first as a super-speed rousing Russian patriotic hymn, then an emotional lament in French, before finally reappearing as an angular German marching song. With dizzying dexterity, we are led through fantasy worlds of extreme contrast, full of sudden and unexpected twists and turns, where music is constantly repeated, broken up or juxtaposed at random.

But in the skewed world of a Wonderland where ‘nine minus eight’ equals ‘bread and butter’, the peculiar logic of Barry’s fragmented structures seems to somehow make sense. ‘It is not necessary for the music to “go” anywhere’, he writes. ‘The pleasure lies in the conversation on the way, the artistry in handling the language.’ Without a common-sense chronology to anchor us, the series of paradoxes that drives these rapid changes of direction becomes our new logic. Like an over-tired toddler, the music swings dramatically from full-throttle hyperactivity to slow-motion naptime, barely giving time for us to catch our breath. This sense of play is the key to unlocking Alice. Rather than worrying about how to understand the rich symbolism and allegory of this postmodern romp, Barry invites us to forget our inhibitions and experience the opera through the eyes of a child: to become Alice herself.

In many ways, both Carroll and Barry are writing at times where childhood innocence is at risk—in the 19th century from an ideological production of ‘seen and not heard’ values, and today from the socially-alienating technology of smart phones and social media, which are purported to promote anxiety and lower self-esteem in adolescents. This risk is palpable in Alice through an acute tension between the childhood fantasy world of Wonderland and the moralistic Victorian values that persistently attempt to infiltrate it.

In the early part of the 19th century, novels were expected to provide moral education for readers of all ages, to ‘dress up morality and the sublimest truths of natural religion in the easy language of infancy’ (Mary Collyer). By concealing topics such as politeness, obedience to parents and table manners within their fictional stories—an approach known as ‘instruction with delight’—writers of Victorian children’s books sought to create a generation of miniature grown-ups, often at the expense of the pleasures of youth. Barry’s obsession with this intervention of oppressive formality is a central theme in nearly all of his operas: from The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit (2002), a homage to Baroque moralistic battles between pleasure and truth, to his more recent The Importance of Being Earnest (2009-10), which offers a critique of the unthinking enactment of mannered Victorian etiquette.

Such a challenge to social formality is evident from this opera’s opening moments. Alice’s gymnastic scales and arpeggios are echoed back to her like didactic vocal exercises; the orchestra acts as a stern teacher, playing back the elements that need to be improved on with increasing frustration. The further Alice goes down the rabbit hole, the more combative this scene becomes, with the student pushing back against their teacher in a spectacular duel of technical prowess. A while later, the Queen of Hearts offers Alice a piano masterclass by shouting phrases from Carl Czerny’s aptly named technical manual Die Schule der Geläufigkeit (School of Velocity), used by burgeoning pianists to develop their technique and ensure ‘even finger strength’. This all seems an appropriate musical nod to Carroll, who was well known to be disapproving of heavy-handed education techniques such as learning by rote, which he believed to stifle childhood imagination. (As the Mock Turtle observes, ‘what is the use of repeating all that stuff … if you don’t explain it as you go?’) This playful take on Victorian education is echoed later, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee—symbolizing cautious parental figures—try to dissuade Alice from curiosity with a moral tale about oysters. In rebellion, Barry becomes impertinently behaved here, setting the text to an unrelenting sequence of cluster chords in resemblance of a frustrated child smashing the piano with their fists. Perhaps the best example of this sort of educational commentary appears in the surreal world of the tea party. The highly ritualized, rule-bound nature of Victorian mealtimes was an inevitable source of inspiration for Carroll, who invites his disorderly cast to break all the rules: resting their elbows on the table, shouting as loudly as they can and even sitting down uninvited! Barry’s score demonstrates similarly bad manners with its extreme repetitions, unnatural text-setting (‘no room no room no room’) and erratic musical phrases that are either bizarrely short or ridiculously long.

With this music coming straight from the madhouse, it seems no coincidence that a common practice in Victorian asylums was to dress patients up in formal clothing and re-create socially accepted rituals such as formal lunches and tea parties. As Franziska Kohlt notes, these events helped patients reconnect with socially accepted behaviour in ‘an attempt to re-educate them, [by] promoting values such as industry, self-control moderation and perseverance; an aspect that made the treatment of lunatics comparable to that of children’. With music that is as nervous and fidgety as the Hatter himself, Barry’s score for the tea party alternates uncomfortably between wild, breathless hysteria and a kind of despondent cortège; the music periodically imprisoned and restrained by extended repetitions of a single bar at a time. ‘Faster, faster’, cries a voice, as the music gains speed and we are pushed further out of control. Without the grounding regularity of time, the music is at its most unhinged, recalling philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s observation that the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit went ‘mad together the day they murdered time’.

But what does this all mean for us? Well, whether middle-class tea party or a cure for insanity, the inherent absurdity of this pantomime is given a meaningful edge by returning to the presence of Alice. This powerful juxtaposition is an invitation for us to stand back from the action and try and see the world through a child’s eyes. If the uneasy menace of an adult world nudges out from behind Carroll’s writing, it positively explodes from the ferocious power of Barry’s orchestral writing, with its shifts between child-like naivety and dark, atonal complexity. When Alice goes through the looking glass we go with her, learning new ways to deal with the strange, jarring and complex world we all find ourselves in; and part of this means embracing the darker, scarier corners of this strange new world.

Alice’s heightened, melodramatic surrealism is a compelling invitation to make sense of our surroundings in a new way, by throwing away our inhibitions and biases, and allowing ourselves to experience the ever-changing, confusing, fragmented world around us with the same sense of wonder and openness as a child. We might walk out into the familiar streets of central London, but—as for Alice—this world will never seem quite the same again.

Toby Young © 2021

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