Stephen Barlow has become one of the most talked about opera directors within the last couple of years, primarily because of his radical reworking of Tosca at Opera Holland Park which, for want of a better phrase, catapulted him to stardom. We meet in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Guildhall School where his staging of Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites is about to open and I’m keen to find out where his desire to become an opera director came from.
“Interesting. There’s a phrase that goes something like ‘Life is what happens to you when you’re planning other things.’ And that’s certainly true when it comes to me being a director. Although I grew up always wanting to be in the theatre, I started out as an actor then went on to study opera and singing at university in Melbourne. I did a lot of dramas and plays and school and when I came to London I worked as an actor and was in a show and when the director wanted someone to revive it he asked me. I was quite surprised that he had chosen me and when I asked him why he answered, “You’ve got a director’s eye and a director’s brain,” and although I was really scared I decided to do it.”
Although full of nerves, Stephen realised about an hour into the first rehearsal that this was his true vocation, having found that being an actor was quite a selfish profession he relished being responsible for everyone and everything about the show as a director. “It’s a huge responsibility yet at the end you’re almost not there – invisible even. When the curtain goes up the director isn’t part of the picture and I actually rather like that. I love sitting in the darkness watching everyone applauding and knowing that the cast and crew are having a fantastic experience of putting the show on stage in front of an audience. I love the fact that as a director I’m helping so many people – it’s very altruistic.”
Opera was calling and Stephen was adamant that he wanted to go down the ‘proper route’ to becoming an opera director so went to Glyndebourne and worked on four shows and then went to Covent Garden and worked on about twenty shows. “I worked with some key people who really inspired me. I’m not going to name names but I also worked with some directors who put me off. In fact one of my very early experiences at Glyndebourne made me question whether I actually wanted to do this. However I worked with two really inspirational ‘Peters’ – Peter Hall and Peter Sellars. They had completely different styles of directing but they were both inspiring to work with as they were inclusive, into team work and put their egos to one side for the benefit of putting together a really good show.”
He cites the opportunity Glyndebourne gave him to direct four Jonathan Dove pieces in the Studio Theatre as an important turning point in his career. They went down really well and they proved to be hugely successful which gave Stephen a lot of confidence that he really could direct opera, “and it really helped me on my way to take the next step.”
A key breakthrough was when James Clutton from Opera Holland Park invited Stephen to direct a new production of Tosca with Amanda Echalaz and it was a huge hit. “It was quite a radical interpretation and we updated it to 1968 and we took some risks and they all paid off but in many ways the biggest risk was James taking me on as I didn’t really have a track record and he could have chosen a more famous or experienced director as there are so many people who want to work there but he saw something in me and I’m glad that he gave me such a fantastic opportunity.”
Talk moves to the thinking behind his new staging of Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites for the Guildhall School. Poulenc’s opera has always seemed one of those operas where it’s virtually impossible to uproot it from its setting in a convent at the time of the French revolution. Although Dmitri Tcherniakov recently did away with the nuns and habits and set in a modern day ‘commune’ for his staging at the Bavarian State Opera, Stephen hasn’t been tempted to follow suit, “When I started thinking about The Carmelites about eight months ago with my designer, David Farley, it was when there was a lot of press coverage of the wearing of the burqa in France and in the opera the nuns are told that they’re not allowed to wear their habits anymore. I did find that link interesting, but at the end of the day I think The Carmelites is one of those pieces that can’t be updated. As it’s not done that often in the UK, we wanted to be really honest with it and not mess around with it. It’s quite liberating to stage it where and when it is supposed to be set. It’s not often that directors do that, however it’s not necessarily a piece that needs to be staged naturalistically.”
Dialogues des Carmelites opens on 3 March with further performances on 5, 7 & 9 March. Tickets available from the Barbican Box Office 020 7638 8891. www.barbican.org.uk.