Scottish Opera explore Marx's years in London

We speak to director Stephen Barlow about the great thinker’s ‘fascinating’ years spent in London – and why they were great source material for a new comic opera produced by Scottish Opera this month

Feature by Eliza Gearty | 01 Feb 2024
  • The set of Marx in London

Before taking on the job of directing Marx in London! – the UK premiere of composer Jonathan Dove’s comic opera about a day in the life of the famous theorist – Stephen Barlow would never have thought to pick up a biography of Karl Marx. The opera and musical theatre director was aware of Marx as one of the “Great economic and political thinkers of the 19th Century” but, like many, thought of the man himself as simply “that Prussian Communist with a funny beard.” When Barlow did start looking into Marx’s eventful personal life, he was surprised by what he found. “There is so much more to him that is both comic and tragic,” he says.

It was a "really crazy life" filled with potential for creative adaptation. In the early 1870s, Marx the philosopher was working on the political and economic theory that would go on to define him – but behind the scenes, his life was chaotic. Expelled from Germany, France and Belgium, Marx had settled in London, where he was harangued by debt collectors and relied on financial hand-outs from sympathetic collaborator Friedrich Engels just to get by. He had a colourful social life, many real and suspected enemies, and plenty of family drama to contend with.

“Everything that happens [in the opera] is based on fact because his life was incredibly well documented,” says Barlow. “The opera uses some theatrical licence to take a series of factual events and condense them all into one day. It’s a bit like [Mozart’s] The Marriage of Figaro, which also focuses on one crazy day where all these things happen.” 

Barlow is keen to stress that Marx in London! is not a fundamentally political piece. “Marx really exists as a concept now – we know about ‘Marxism’ and ‘being a Marxist'. The point of the opera is to take away the ‘isms’ and 'ists’ and look at the man himself and a life rich with comic contradiction.” This is not to say that the opera completely shies away from Marx’s radical beliefs. “When you do an opera about Karl Marx, it would be remiss to not touch base on what he advocated for,” Barlow notes. “He sacrificed a lot for his beliefs, at huge cost to him and his family. And he changed the history of the 20th century. So Jonathan Dove and librettist Charles Hart do touch on [that side of his life] – but this is not an agitprop piece that’s meant to have you storming the barricades. It’s entertaining and it presents the facts. It’s not a love letter to Karl Marx; nor is it a hatchet job.”

Marx’s life was rich and varied. It could have been adapted into a serious drama, a rousing political tour-de-force or even a tragedy. Why an opera – and furthermore, why a comic one? “He’s such a larger than life figure, and his ideas were big. The thing opera can do better than West End or Broadway musical theatre is tackle big themes really well," Barlow enthuses. The production has “The big, musical resources of a Verdi opera – a chorus of thirty-four, a large orchestra. That matches the big political and philosophical themes that relate to Marx.” 

As for comedy, Barlow says that comedy and opera have always been “very happy bedfellows” – noting that Marx in London! delivers many of the “usual comic opera tropes” – but also adds that comedy can be a warmer and more inviting genre. “I remember Jonathan [Dove] was once asked, ‘What do you want people to feel when they’re watching your work?’ and his answer was, ‘I want them to enjoy a good night out.' Nobody today writes operas as appealing, entertaining and accessible as Jonathan Dove. They’re very much operas – written for operatic voices, scored for operatic orchestras – but they have the appeal of a musical.” Comedy can also contain “light and shade”, capturing, perhaps most accurately, the combined humour and tragedy of a human life. “Like a Chekhov play or a Mozart opera or an episode of Frasier, you can be laughing a lot and then suddenly you get to a bit that’s really quite sad and poignant,” Barlow says. “This is a romp with grit. There’s a mix of laugh out loud moments and poignancy and pathos.”

Above all, Marx in London! promises to be, as Dove intended, a good night out. “I want to take the audience by the hand and lead them into this crazy, funny and poignant world of Marx, his family, his friends and his enemies,” says Barlow. “As soon as you walk into the auditorium, I guarantee you’re going to smile before a note is even played or sung.”

Marx in London!, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 13, 15 & 17 Feb, 7.15pm; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 22 & 24 Feb, 7.15pm