I went out to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where Crash Ensemble where doing a concert performance of Gerald Barry's fascinating opera The Intelligence Park. This is set in the past and is about a puppet-fancying composer who becomes obsessed with a star castrato. It was on the same night as the UK Queen and Prince Phillip were going off to some posh event somewhere, which meant that it was horrendously difficult to get around the city, with everything being under lockdown. We found ourselves stuck on the wrong side of the river while they closed all the bridges before the Queen drove up the quays. This was a bit annoying, but it did mean that I caught a glimpse of the royal car and its inhabitants waving* – and of some guy being carted off by the cops after he shouted "Fuck off back to England" at our visitors.
The worst bit of all the delay was that the concert performance was to be preceded by a wine reception – or so we had been told. When we arrived, it was not so much a wine reception as a wine bar – as in, you had to pay for your drinks. I don't know what Prince Philip would have said (which might just have happened – he and the Queen had apparently been given a compilation CD of contemporary Irish music**; having given it a listen you could imagine the Prince making his excuses and leaving whatever ghastly event he was attending so that he could catch some of this contemporary music in the flesh).
Anyway, the opera. It begins with a boy soprano singing a song. I've never really got boy sopranos before, but there was a beauty to the vocals issuing from this young fellow. I found myself almost understanding the fondness of certain people in the past for castrating boy singers so that their voices would develop an adult's strength while retaining the ability to hit the high notes. Maybe that was the point of the boy soprano's appearance – he did not seem to have anything directly to do with the rest of the action.
As I was saying, the opera was about this composer who also makes puppets and who becomes obsessed with this castrato singer. He starts mixing up the puppets and the real people and eventually loses all sense of reality, particularly after the cheeky castrato runs away with the posh bird he is meant to be marrying. I seem to recall hearing that, back in the day, castrati were very popular with the ladies and could be surprisingly saucy, so this twist was not entirely ridiculous. To the extent that the composer character was really aware of what was happening, he seemed more bothered by the loss of the castrato rather than the disappearance of his lovely fiancée and the rich inheritance she promised. Such is love.
I think a fully staged performance of this would have been fascinating. I also was interested by the way Barry worked against gender and voice stereotyping in giving lines to the characters – you might think that the castrato character would be sung either by a woman or by a counter-tenor – not a bit of it, the part was sung by a man with a singing voice that did not even hint at lacking anything in the meat-and-two-veg department. I did like the way he acted the part, however, as he did a great castrato-face***.
Gerald Barry himself was knocking around at the event. He seems to be a bit of a roffler, quite far removed from the stereotype of the austere contemporary composer. Given how enjoyable The Intelligence Park and the pieces by him on the CD IMMA gave away with Boulevard Magenta (their art magazine), I cannot but think that he is someone whose work I must explore further.
*I'm not proud – I waved back.
**including actual music by Gerald Barry.
*** Opera singer's voice: "Do you mind, that's the way I always look".
An inuit panda production