Above: director/designer Antony McDonald during rehearsals for the world premiere of Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground at London’s Royal Opera House

“I love surrealism and things that don’t really make sense,” says McDonald. “Gerald Barry’s piece is not exactly a precise telling of Lewis Carroll stories and in my designs I wanted children to be able know where they were, while I also didn’t want things to look like the famous drawings of [original illustrator of the Alice books] John Tenniel.

Top left: Jennifer France; top right: Joshua Bloom as Humpty Dumpty. He shares the role with Alan Ewing; middle: The Mock Turtle; bottom: McDonald gives notes

“I’m definitely free-range organic,” jokes Bloom, playing Humpty Dumpty. McDonald, as well as directing, has designed it all – sets, props and every costume. “Everyone’s basic costume is Victorian underwear; they put their other costumes on top. I’ve been working on it for about two years. I said that a condition of my agreeing to do the production was that we had to have all the costumes and the props in rehearsal from the very beginning. That meant we could solve problems as we went along.”

Above top: the Oysters, the Walrus and the Carpenter; below: Alice (Claudia Boyle) rehearses with the Cook and the Duchess

“The scene changes are all incredibly fast,” says McDonald. “The bottles turn to cakes in the blink of an eye, or the White Queen has to be an Oyster and then back to the White Queen. I spent a long time trying to work out how you could go from scene to scene and make the costume changes work. Barry gives very precise stage directions. If I haven’t honoured every single one of them, I’ve tried to honour the spirit of all of them.”

Above: Props and wigs backstage. All were made from scratch by the ROH props crew, even down to a desk complete with fake Victorian ink-stains

Some of Barry’s precise stage directions include: “The scene should go like the wind …Players are guillotined randomly … Soldiers come running in through the wood, at first in twos and threes, and then at last in such crowds that they seem to fill the whole forest. They trip over something or other, and whenever one goes down, several more fall over him, so that the ground is soon covered with heaps of men.” An old, hairless teddy belonging to Barry’s partner’s brother inspired the stutterings of the White Queen, carefully annotated by Barry. “When you turn it over slowly,” he told an interviewer, “it groans a glissando from E to G. If you shake it while turning it upside-down, it produces a staccato gasp – a little cruel, I know.”

Top: make-up backstage during one of the very quick changes; bottom: Claudia Boyle in her dressing room

Above: the opening scene features Alice falling down the rabbit hole

The entire opera is under an hour long and is showing twice an evening on the Royal Opera House’s main stage, with two separate casts. Claudia Boyle is one of the two sopranos singing the role of Alice. “I love the humour of Barry’s music. It’s like an assault on the senses because it’s an experience as well as great music. He really pushes the orchestra and the singers to their limits. The opening scales and arpeggios as Alice falls down the rabbit hole are particularly extreme. It’s great – every coloratura soprano’s dream!”

“The opera is relatively short but everything is packed in. I’m on stage most of the time … It’s intense but I love it. It feeds my soprano ego,” jokes Boyle, who originally studied as a cellist but swapped to singing “because I was sick of being in the pit and decided I wanted to be on stage!”

Above: Allison Cook (Red Queen), Jennifer France (Alice) and Carole Wilson (White Queen)

“When I was a child I didn’t particularly take to the books,” says Boyle. “I always thought there was a darkness to them. These larger than life characters that are all a bit psychotic. Alice is a really strong girl, a great character to play. She questions things, she stands up to people rather than cowers, and she navigates herself through this rather frightening world pretty well. I much prefer playing strong characters.”

I love Barry’s music. His compositions are a Frankenstein mashup of found sounds, whistles, shouts and spoken words, of snatches of tunes, old music hall songs, ear-worms from symphonies and sonatas, that he then tears to pieces and puts together again like papier mache. And then he turns it on its head because it’s so much fun. Thomas Adès

Above, conductor and composer Thomas Adès, whose association with Barry’s music goes back more than 20 years; and a page of Barry’s Alice score

“My job is to be the one point of stability in all this. The circus master if you like. His writing is very precise. He knows exactly what he wants and shows you how he wants it, when to go up in the voice, when to go down, what rhythm and when to leave tiny pauses. He reminds me of Beckett or Pinter – the pauses are as important as the music, and brilliantly convey the deep weirdness of the characters Alice encounters,” says Adès.

“This is an opera for ages two to 102. Carroll’s Alice books are for the child that’s still in all of us,” says Adès. “Opera feeds the soul,” says Boyle. “It’s visceral. It’s truthful. It moves you. It’s our job to try and open it up and get more people to come to it. Works like this bring in new audiences that you hope can then grow up with opera.”

Tenor Sam Furness (below) plays the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledum, a fawn, a train passenger, the White King, a bottle and a cake. “It’s definitely up there in terms of the more extraordinary roles I’ve sung,” says Furness. “I’ve got something like 12 costume changes which all happen within a 45-minute long piece. We don’t really know where we are, we’re just being rushed along to the next thing by our dressers. At one point I have a one-and-a-half minute costume change so I can relax and take a breath. Which is nice.”

“It’s exhilarating and terrifying, but I’m an adrenaline junkie so I love it,” says Furness. “Musically it’s pretty fast and furious, whatever we’re singing, and very, very high – I think I’ve used up all my high notes. Just in one two-minute section we counted the other day we’ve got 55 top Bs and six top Cs, which is like a month’s worth normally.”

Above left: Clare Presland (Red Queen/Queen of Hearts) takes a breather backstage; right: dancer David Stirrup

A male dancer – here with the author’s face as if tattooed on his chest – represents Lewis Carroll who comes and goes throughout McDonald’s production. It’s his and Alice’s dream, says McDonald.

I hope people will come away feeling stimulated and excited. It’s like a kind of explosion – throwing lots of things up in the air and then they finally settle. Anything that explodes your brain is good for you, isn’t it? Antony McDonald

Barry has made a few interpolations: the Queen of Hearts’s croquet match has become a singing masterclass with Alice and orchestra in a battle of scales and arpeggios. The gyres and gimbles of Jabberwocky are shouted in German, French and Russian. At the end, instead of Alice waking up, there’s something more melancholy. “I’ve got Alice killing the White Queen as well as the Red Queen,” says McDonald, “although that’s not in Barry’s score.” It’s a valedictory moment. Leaving childhood behind.

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