Gerald Barry – The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Written by: Colin Anderson

Gerald Barry’s latest opera is of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. It opens at English National Opera on 16 September; Gerald Barry and conductor André de Ridder talk about the processes involved…

Gerald Barry says his three operas to date are “incredibly different, almost written by three different people.” What draws him to the genre? “Drama.” His latest, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, after Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play and film concerns lesbian love and includes the F-word. “None of that matters to me. All that matters is the drama. What gripped me about the play was its extraordinary emotional range. I’m very loyal to Fassbinder’s text. I obey every comma and full stop: that creates pacing and architecture and dictates an intuitive way with the music; I feel my way along. I’ve kept away from the film for many years, and I haven’t seen the end of the opera yet!” You mean you’re not aware of the staging? “Absolutely! I have enormous respect for the director Richard Jones and Ultz the designer. The music is written and you have to leave it to them to do what they do; they are wonderful people.”

Act Two of Bitter Tears was heard at the 2002 Huddersfield Festival and the whole opera performed in Dublin in May and recorded by RTE for CD. “An embarrassment of, I don’t know if can say this, riches!” Gerald refers to the CDs of Bitter Tears and also NMC’s new release of his first opera, The Intelligence Park (NMC D122) – very different, indeed. Act II of Bitter Tears has terrific energy and dynamism. Is this typical of the work? “The acts are very different with a lot of material that is new in each. That’s important.”

I praise the composer’s concern for the clarity of the words and the lucidity of the music, however complex. It reminds of Stravinsky. “I love Stravinsky. I was aware I was taking material that is the equivalent of everyday objects; my equivalents are arpeggios and scales and I create a heightened effect.” For all that the torrent of notes seems a whirlwind of composition, Gerald says that composing can “take time, really hard, although it can also be seen in one go.”

Gerald suggests that Bitter Tears is “also a very funny opera; even funnier than I had realised now I have seen some of the staging. It really is a tragic comedy.” Something that André de Ridder, the conductor of English National Opera’s premiere staging of Bitter Tears concurs with. “It’s both a tragedy and a comedy. It works! I read the original theatre play and I had seen the film. Then I went to the piano with the vocal score to get to know Gerald’s harmonic language and then I learnt the full score bit by bit. It’s very fast and almost every bar is different in terms of the time signature; but still the music flows, it’s driven by virtuosity and is not stereotypical in using leitmotifs, which is interesting and unusual. The brass has to play all night; the trumpets and horns are often very high and very loud. The singers have a huge range. The conducting is virtuoso, too – but I enjoy that! All of us are completely new, and it’s a great cast. It’s an amazing process; you come prepared but it really comes to life working as a team. And you can ask the composer questions! Gerald writes the music first – but he knows the text and the plot, and he makes the words fit.”

All seems well for the first night. The composer “loves the staging, it’s something to be gripped by” and the conductor finds it “amazing.” I get a sneak preview of what seems an attractive design of domesticity, but that’s only on the surface. The music teems with invention for what André terms a “classic five-act drama; it’s like a Greek tragedy, the fifth act being like an epilogue after the catastrophe, which come at exactly the right moment.” André was at the Dublin concert performance and describes “an overwhelming reaction” from the audience, while the composer says that Bitter Tears is “a notation of my nervous system.”



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