Comic Instincts: Stephen Barlow on opera's 'warts and all' Karl Marx

Karl Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels regarded him as the greatest thinker of the 19th century – not someone you would expect to find at the centre of a comic opera! Marx in London! sees director Stephen Barlow’s return to Scottish Opera following his ‘unfailingly clever’ (The Stage) Flight in 2018.

Stephen has directed dozens of operas, plays, and musicals and has a long affinity with Jonathan Dove’s work. He spoke to us about the humanity behind great men and great theatre. 

Director Stephen Barlow in rehearsals for Marx in London!

With the wide variety of operas and musicals you’ve directed, what draws you to work on Marx in London!? 

As a musical storyteller, I am always interested in where musicals and operas cross over in the Venn diagram. And in Jonathan Dove and Charles Hart, the composer and librettist of Marx in London!, you have a dream team that are well-versed in both art forms. Jonathan’s music, whilst steeped in operatic rigour, has the indisputable ‘tang’ of musical theatre. I cannot think of another modern opera composer of whom you could say that. And Charles co-wrote the book to the most successful stage musical of all time – The Phantom of the Opera – which is all about an opera house! I love that synthesis in this work – an opera that flows and at times feels like a musical in terms of pace and accessibility, but always remains an opera composed for acoustic voice and orchestra. There is even a falling chandelier which makes the synthesis complete! 

Marx in London! is not a political opera, but Karl Marx is a bogeyman to some, hero to others, and intimidating to most! How do you reconcile this massive reputation with the opera’s very human, very humorous story? 

Fortunately, Jonathan and in particular Charles have done that reconciliation for me – and indeed for all of us watching this piece. They concentrate on the man, not the myth or the two suffixes which have become attached to his name – ‘ism’ and ‘ist’. They explore largely factual episodes (with a delightful dose of poetic licence) from Marx’s life and in so doing humanise and humourise the ‘bogeyman’. It is important to add that theirs is a warts-and-all portrait – not a hagiography – of a complicated, contradictory character. Quite literally warts-and-all because Marx infamously suffered from ‘carbuncles’ on his bottom which made sitting down uncomfortable. This is even addressed in the piece! 

What particular challenges does comedy present when preparing and rehearsing an opera? 

I have learnt to trust my instincts – if I find something funny, then hopefully other people will too. Nonetheless, there is always that fear that what may have the rehearsal room doubled over in hysterics might play to tumbleweed in the theatre! And of course laughs often arrive where you least expect (or want!) them. I have also learnt to enjoy exploring physical comedy more in my work, and fortunately, there may be opportunities to access that in some of the farce-like moments in the opera. Karl Marx meets the Marx Brothers perhaps! 
I saw The Barber of Seville recently, directed by Sir Thomas Allen, and I was laughing out loud at the way Doctor Bartolo constantly tripped on the final step of his broken staircase. It was a schoolboy kind of humour – a wonderful running (tripping?!) gag. Laughter makes children of us all, which is a good thing. 

Are there any specific challenges directing actors playing historical figures? 

I guess there is a certain added responsibility when you are dealing with people that really existed. But perhaps the issue becomes more complex when the real characters exist in our living memory. For example, in the first two series of the TV drama The Crown everybody loved the portrayal of the young Queen by Claire Foy but in the later series when the Queen was older and familiar to most of us there was a lot of criticism about how the actresses didn’t look or sound like ‘the real thing’. There are only a few photographs of Karl Marx and no footage, and we do not have to negotiate this issue of remembered veracity. We have a freedom to bring Karl to life unencumbered by the obligation to imitate him. 

What draws you to Jonathan Dove’s works? 

Jonathan told me recently that I have directed more of his operas – seven – than anyone else! I am delighted about that. The very first operas I directed were two short, early pieces by Jonathan – Greed and Pig – in a studio theatre at Glyndebourne 19 years ago. What I love about his work – not just his operas, but his prolific vocal and instrumental works – is that they are infused with heart and humanity. Also, Jonathan shares a quality that is only equalled with Puccini in that he is always conscious of how things happen on stage. He does not write in a composer vacuum. When he was composing Itch last year [which Stephen directed for Opera Holland Park] he emailed me to check how much time would be needed for a particular costume change. He is always thinking of the big picture – how a show comes together in the theatre. Finally, I would add that most of all Jonathan writes for the audience. He does not write to punish the audience, nor to pander to them. He simply wants us to enjoy a good night out, and all his operas fall into this category. 

What do you hope audiences take away from this opera? 

A rare insight into Karl the man – immigrant, husband, father, and friend – as opposed to Marx the revolutionary political philosopher. Also, a recognition that modern opera can be just as vital and entertaining as The Barber of Seville or Gianni Schicchi. These were modern operas once! 

Marx in London! tours to Glasgow and Edinburgh from Tuesday 13 February 2024. Book tickets now