I attended the world premiere of The Intelligence Park at the Almeida Festival in summer 1990. As a young director with a track record for creating productions of contemporary opera I had been invited by the Almeida to talk to Gerald Barry about it the year before, exploring whether I might direct it. That conversation came to nothing, and when I saw the piece I was somewhat relieved: It came across as a highly complex and deliberately confrontational work which would probably have been beyond me at that time. To be honest, I didn’t really get it and was rather annoyed by it, but I was also surprisingly excited by the experience of seeing and hearing it. Here was a new opera which seemed to explode onto the stage in front of us and set out to break all the rules. It was admirably uncompromising and not concerned about what anyone else might think. It was like nothing any of us had seen before and it stuck with me, even though I wasn’t sure why.
Ten years after the premiere the CD recording was issued and I immediately bought a copy, and started to listen to it. I became more interested. It was indeed uncompromising, musically and dramatically, although the plot was more conventional than I had been able to detect at first encounter, and the writing for voice and ensemble was utterly extraordinary. I love work that is truly original, and here was a unique voice. Barry just wrote what he wanted, without regard for convention or expectation. The vocal lines were truly eccentric, and the writing for the instruments was so energetic and virtuosic I found the combination exciting and astonishing. The work also had more variety than I recalled, with some beautiful moments of stillness, and as I listened I built a stronger sense of character and story. I wanted MTW to do it, but needed to find the right time and place, including a willing co-producer and a group of artists who also believed in the piece and wanted to take on the challenge.
It all fell into place at the start of Music Theatre Wales’ new association with the London Sinfonietta. At the time Richard Baker was our Consultant Music Director and he had conducted the only performance of this opera since its premiere as a concert in Dublin in 2011. He was delighted when I suggested the piece, and when we asked if the Sinfonietta were interested it was greeted with equal enthusiasm, not least due to its status as a piece that demanded further attention but was perhaps too far out there or difficult for anyone to do. Those qualities only furthered my commitment. At the same time, we were in discussion with the Royal Opera about what work we might do with them in the future, and when I asked if they were interested in The Intelligence Park everything fell into place. The Royal Opera were already exploring the possibility of creating the world premiere staging of Barry’s newest opera, Alice in the Under Ground on the main stage, and it clearly made sense for them to also present a new production of his first opera in the same season in the Linbury Theatre, their smaller stage which has long been MTW’s London home.
The Royal Opera soon agreed to join as co-producer on this production, as they had done on several productions in the past, but this time they were keen to work as creative partners and not simply provide resources. We agreed to select the creative team and undertake the casting together and agree all aspects of the production from page to stage. MTW would still be the lead producer, rehearsing and making the physical production in Cardiff, which would then move to the Royal Opera House for final stage and technical rehearsals and an opening run of six performances. We would then take the production on tour, but this time as MTW and ROH, demonstrating how deep the collaboration was and taking ROH on a rare visit outside London, including to Wales! Our partnership has been excellent, especially on the creative side with the selection of director-designer Nigel Lowery, whose career as a designer has been truly stellar in the UK but whose directing has largely taken place in Europe. He had directed Barry’s second piece The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit so he already knew the territory, and we all felt he had the right visual imagination for The Intelligence Park. Our next challenge was to find a conductor.
I had been aware of Jessica Cottis’s work for a number of years, first coming across her in Scotland. She has always had a commitment to new music and had already conducted a semi-staged event for London Sinfonietta as well as the first new opera staged in the newly re-built Linbury Theatre. Knowing the music of Gerald Barry, she leapt at the chance to conduct The Intelligence Park!
Casting was an incredibly revealing process, demonstrating that there are singers for whom Gerald Barry’s music worked and others who simply don’t get it. There was no in-between! We were excited by the singers who were lit up by the extreme challenge of singing extracts from the opera, and we gradually put together an extraordinary team, some completely new to contemporary opera and others more seasoned, but all up for the challenge.
Putting this whole thing together was never going to be easy, and as the rehearsal period loomed the nerves began to show. It was a great relief to everyone when the cast all met in Cardiff and discovered they were all equally anxious about learning and performing the piece and yet buzzing with anticipation. The combined mood of fear and thrill continued throughout the process and I started to see the opera come back to life, as bold and brash as it ever was but in a way that I think audiences will be able to discover its joys as well as experience its uncompromising nature.
The production is clearly set in Georgian times, but in a kind of toy theatre where nobody is actually “real”. It uses painted sets and make-up in a way MTW has never previously imagined, and more or less period costumes, and this clearly helps people get a better understanding of Barry’s startling new music – non-naturalistic and almost child-like in its brash gestures. I think it helps the piece reach out to an audience.
Perhaps now, 30 years since the premiere, the world might be ready for The Intelligence Park? We are more used to the music of Gerald Barry and he has had a huge success with his comic operatic setting of Oscar Wilde’s once outrageous study of superficial morality in The Importance of Being Earnest which has people laughing out loud at the way Barry exposes and exaggerates their behaviour. The Intelligence Park is not overtly comic, but it certainly has the strangest and funniest of behaviours going on and some of the most outrageous music you will ever hear. It’s a work to be experienced full on, in the flesh and marvelling at the astonishing skill and commitment of all the performers. It’s a once in a lifetime event, an overwhelming onslaught and virtuosic display, but not without heart and certainly not without skill and originality. Catch it if you can. It’ll stay with you for a while!
Artistic Director, Music Theatre Wales
October 8: Sherman, Cardiff
October 12: RNCM, Manchester
November 4: The Rep, Birmingham
Music Theatre Wales and The Royal Opera House co-production of Gerald Barry’s first opera The Intelligence Park is directed and designed by UK director Nigel Lowery. The Intelligence Park received its premiere/opening at The Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London on 25 September with further performances at the venue until 4 October and now touring.
The Intelligence Park
Gerald Barry’s first opera The Intelligence Park was commissioned by the ICA and was first performed in 1990 at the Almeida Festival, but it has not been staged since then. The setting is Dublin, 1753. A frustrated and impoverished opera composer’s work goes into a spin when he falls for his lead castrato – but then the castrato elopes with the composer’s rich fiancée, causing chaos and catastrophe all round.
Gerald Barry’s operas are daring, surreal, and often laugh-out-loud funny. This compelling opera exploded on to the stage in London in 1990, introducing a completely new operatic voice to the world. Almost 30 years on, director/designer Nigel Lowery’s new messed-up Baroque production aims to rediscover its zoo of emotions, characters and absurdities in a blurring of imagination and reality, as it explores notions of creativity, sexuality and obligation.
The cast includes Michel de Souza as Paradies, Adrian Dwyer as D’Esperaudieu, Rhian Lois as Jerusha Cramer, Patrick Terry (Jette Parker Young Artist) as Serafino, Stephanie Marshall as Faranesi and Stephen Richardson as Sir Joshua Cramer, reprising the role he created in 1990.
Recently noted as the “Classical ‘face to watch’” (The Times), conductor Jessica Cottis spent her early professional years as assistant conductor to Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Since then her performances have received consistent acclaim in the national and international press. Following the success of her debut at Royal Opera House in 2017 she was immediately re-invited to conduct the word premiere of The Monstrous Child by Gavin Higgins. Her dynamic conducting style and leadership have led to guest conducting invitations from orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Houston Symphony Orchestra to name a few.
Director and designer Nigel Lowery’s previous design work includes Der Ring Des Nibelungen for Covent Garden, Blond Ekbert (ENO), Inquest Of Love (Brussels) and Giulio Cesare in Munich. He first directed at the Batignano festival, quickly followed by Il barbiere di Siviglia for The Royal Opera and Hänsel und Gretel for Theater Basel. Further productions include Rinaldo, Tito, L’italiana in Algieri for Staatsoper in Berlin, Figaro in Stuttgart, Candide and Akhnaten in Antwerp. His productions have been seen at Festivals in Aldeburgh, Barcelona, Berlin and Edinburgh.
There will be a pre performance talk at each of the venues outside London from Music Theatre Wales’ Artistic Director, Michael McCarthy which will be free to ticket