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Gerald Barry – The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Pre-performance talk 20 September 2005 – Gerald Barry in conversation with Sean Doran
(Transcript of notes made by by Serena Fenwick)

SD I was curious to learn that you spent several years working on this opera without any firm plans for it to be put on stage.
GB I knew it would be staged eventually, but didn't have any specific commission for it, it was just what I wanted to do. In the end RTE gave it's first performance in a concert version in Dublin and now it's here at ENO.

SD Why Petra ?
GB It has a fantastic emotional range of text from comedy to bleak tragedy. It's funny in a black way, and the tragedy is often funny. It's written on a large scale emotionally although there are only six characters.

SD Why did you set every word of the play?
GB I only heard yesterday that for the film Fassbinder himself cut the text, I hadn't seen the film for decades and virtually don't know it. It never occurred to me not to set the full text, but have discovered, rather irritatingly, that I did in fact miss out one or two words. For example, in Petra 's opening telephone conversation about Miami I missed out “Honestly delightful.”

SD Could you summarise the plot for us in your own words.
GB It's very single minded and focused – lean. It deals simply with one woman in one apartment. She falls in love, is rejected and collapses in crisis then, like the Pastoral Symphony, there is a calm after the storm. The all-femaie cast and sexuality didn't matter to me, it was just the sense of plot and drama. The most important thing is that it addresses all human feelings.

SD Was there a special challenge in writing for five women's voices?
GB It wasn't too difficult to differentiate the characters. I chose two dramatic sopranos, Petra and Karin, a coloratura soprano for Petra 's daughter, a mezzo for her friend and a contralto for her mother. The silent character of Marlene (Linda Kitchen) is crucial and makes the whole thing work in terms of atmosphere and establishing a sort of slave/mistress regime.

SD Yes, I heard the concert performance in Dublin , but the addition of the mute part is revelatory.
GB In rehearsal things change all the time. One powerful thing is the whole business of how people look at each other. It's chilling and very powerful.

SD Could you tell us a bit about your musical language and idiom.
GB “Driven” is an adjective that is often used to describe my work, but there is a hell of a lot more to it than that. People like to categorise work, but composing is an emotional, intuitive, feeling ones way along, mysterious process.

SD Which comes first for you, words or music?
GB I can't imagine that what I do is different from the way that Bach wrote his cantatas. Sometimes one writes the music and then adds the text. Then again something in the text, like a description of a river flowing, will dictate what the sounds are going to be. I collect a bank of musical material then look at the text and see what the options are. I look at lots of options, and this can suggest a way of setting the text which would not have immediately occurred to me. People think in multi-layered ways, music reflects that and mimics that complicated richness.

SD Let's talk about surtitles – how important is it to be aware of the words?
GB People get incredibly excited about surtitles. There is a valid point that if you read them you can loose focus and loose touch with the stage, and it is important to engage with what happens on stage. But I've become quite relaxed about them, I thought it might be a bit like Wimbledon , but there is an art in pacing them which I can appreciate. People often make remarks about operas having second rate texts, in this case the text is wonderful and it is ideal to see it.

SD You have now written three operas, has there been any change in your musical language?
GB I invest each piece with as much care as anything else. I take everything at face value, I am not interested in interfering and subverting things. Directors often do this and miss the most important thing which is on the surface. It is a strength to take something at face value.

SD What is provoking people to think that Petra is not in the tradition of opera?
GB I don't know – reviews astonish me – I long for some kind of sanity in reviewing. I simply write music as I see fit, for myself. I must be pleased with it in the hope that it will be pleasing to others – melodic and straight forward. People were nice on the opening night (as they almost always are). Not to be self congratulatory, but people responded and there was a certain electricity . . .

SD In fact there was an extended standing ovation! I also did not see one person walk out, which is rare with a new work. What was the greatest challenge in Petra ?
It took me four years to write. (I spent nine years on my first opera and nine months on my second.) I couldn't have imagined doing it quicker. Structurally it's a classic structure using the text. In terms of tension it builds to the fourth act catastrophe, and its significant that two new characters are introduced at that point. It's the sort of world where tension builds before falling away into a calm.
The last words “Tell me about your life” were particularly difficult, and I wrote this section many, many times. Diaghelev was a great man of the theatre and asked Stravinsky to re-write an ending which he considered too enigmatic. The ending is crucial and in a big theatre people must not feel unsure about it. You must bring people with you, but not with a gigantic crash. It's positive and enigmatic, a new vista opening.

SD As an Irish composer writing opera in what sort of health is contemporary music in Ireland ?
GB I only have two friends who are composers, most of them do other things, so I don't know much about it. I guess it's as vibrant as many places.

SD Is there anything of an Irish tradition in your music?
GB Irish folk music is wonderful, but there is no obvious audible reference, just oblique energy. I love Caley bands, they are brash and vulgar (in the original meaning of the word), and very inspiring – the attack is there.

Audience Qu is your opera tonal? If so, how many keys do you use?
GB It is tonal with keys all over the place, sometime obvious, sometimes invidious. I find myself rediscovering the laws of classical music all the time.

Aud: Did you do any workshops before finalising the piece.
GB No, I finalised it on my own. I hate workshops and that whole community thing.

Aud: How much work did you do with the text before setting it?
GB It was a lucky break to find text like this – I had the luxury of just looking at it. Composiiton happended in a higgledy piggledy way, like laying out a deck of cards and looking at options.

Aud: What was the relationship between characters, vocal parts and the cast.
GB ENO cast the singers. I chose the voice types to allow the ear to rest and introduce some darker sections, thus the older woman would be a contralto and the young daughter a coloratura.

SD The strong cast was chosen by John Berry, in the ENO tradition of requiring phenomenal dramatic skills. Which is more important – words or music?
GB I think the text is wonderful and I tried to find a way of serving it as best as I can. Whilst writing music I try to side step any preconceptions and anything that restricts, and completely detach myself from the text. When I have prepared lots of music I look at music and text and begin to sculpt the music to fit the text. Both become utterly living with active desires and demands. It's a bit like a skin graft certain texts will reject certain music and vice versa, there is a vivid dialogue between music and text.

That is why it is important to have various banks of music. Schubert's octet is an outstanding work because he keeps introducing new ideas right through the piece. The challenge in large scale works is not to flag, I stopped writing Petra for a period in order to find new music and not to fade.

Aud: Where and how do you write your music?
GB I work at the piano and write out the orchestral parts by hand in manuscript. Thinking is a large part of it.

Aud: Did you make changes between the concert premier?
GB I wasn't tempted to change anything significant.

Aud: Did you attend rehearsals?
GB Hardly at all – the last person they want to see there is the composer.

Aud: Did the performance surprise you?
GB Sometimes, I had given comprehensive verbal indications in the score, and Richard Jones respected these. We did have a discussion about the use of pre-recorded music for all three of the gramophone record sequences. It was a logical idea but I resisted it, I think about pauses incredibly carefully not to loose energy. Petra knows exactly what record she wants to play, a different mood for the final calming process.

Serena Fenwick


© Peter Grahame Woolf