Saturday, 4 May 2013

An encounter with Stephen Barlow

Stephen Barlow
This year's Buxton Festival will be Stephen Barlow's second as artistic director. The moment in an artistic relationship when, perhaps, you might expect to find the new boy introducing changes, but rather refreshingly Barlow is firmly of the 'if it ain't broke, don't fixit' school and his Buxton Festival is the same Buxton, only more so. Though he helped found Opera 80, and was artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland, Barlow is not well known in this country as an artistic director and I met up with him to talk about his plans for Buxton and his views on being Artistic Director of one of the UK's most distinctive festivals. We met up over a beer in Lambeth, where Barlow had been rehearsing Poulenc's Carmelites which he conducts at this year's Grange Park Opera, another festival with which he has a long association.

Inevitably we started by talking about Carmelites, an opera that clearly Barlow finds remarkable. We talked of the piece's remarkable structure, unprecedented in Poulenc's oeuvre, with a feeling for the overarching shape of what is a very long work, with a great deal of recitative. Coming to the piece for the first time, Barlow was clearly enthused by the work and I look forward to the performances in June. (Carmelites premieres on June 11 at Grange Park Opera).

Barlow's relationship with Grange Park Opera goes back a number of years and he has conducted a varied repertoire there including Falstaff, Rusalka, Norma, Queen of Spades and Tristan und Isolde. This list perhaps gives a clue as to why Barlow is not better known, he seems to be able to unflappably turn his hand to a wide variety of repertoire, rather than specialising in one particular. When asked if he has a wish list of operas he would like to conduct, he comments that he not only has done so many of the major Rossini, Verdi, Strauss and Mozart operas but that his recent outings at Grange Park have meant that he has conducted much of what he would like to do.

That said, he then comes up with a typically eclectic and thoughtful list of operas on which he would still like to work. A couple are in fact in the pipeline, as he has both Peter Grimes and Samson et Dalila pencilled into his schedule already. But Billy Budd remains on his wish list, as does Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. He talks of seeing this opera live for the first time at the recent Covent Garden performance, and how it was everything that he'd hoped.

He admits that he had never thought that he would get to conduct Tristan und Isolde, and in fact the team at Grange Park in 2011 were all new to the work, David Fielding had never directed the opera before and tenor Richard Berkeley Steele had never sung it (though he had covered the role). Now, having conducted Tristan, Barlow still has Lohengrin and Parsifal on his list. Other operas such as Martinu's Julietta and Dvorak's Dmitri reveal a continuing fascination with late 19th and 20th century opera in all its wider forms, rather than a concentration on just the major players. (Dvorak's Jacobin is another work which is already on Barlow's future schedule).

He confesses that he is fascinated by Dvorak's large scale operas, though these are difficult in a climate where opera companies are trying to think of ways how not to do big operas. Saint-Saens is another composer who is regarded as something of an operatic by-way, but Barlow points out that he was very highly regarded in his day. With Samson et Dalila already on his schedule, and La Princesse Jaune being performed at this year's Buxton Festival, Barlow very much hopes that he will get a chance to perform other  Saint-Saens operas.

One final opera crosses our list, Tippett's Midsummer Marriage; Barlow very much feels that Tippett's operas have been side-lined unnecessarily. But he then adds that at the moment, managements tend to look with caution at the repertoire. He talks of building up interest in your product and keeping the audience intrigued.  He cites as examples the Powerhouse years at ENO, which developed over a long period, and Simon Rattle and Ed Smith's era at the CBSO in Birmingham where they built an audience out of what Barlow described as trust and pizzaz.

At Buxton there is a core audience which is full of curiosity and really wants to explore. Barlow comments that everyone who wants to sell an arts product looks for a unique selling point in either repertoire or artist. But that Buxton is lucky, they can put on something nobody knows and the audience has faith in the festival's quality, that they will come for extraordinary things. As an example he mentions Bampton Classical Opera's production of Portugal's Marriage of Figaro, an unknown opera by an unknown composer, which almost sold out at last year's festival. Buxton has developed a really enthusiastic core audience who come to see things for their illumination, delight and education.

To achieve this Barlow is convinced that not only do you need to know your audience, but you need to know them better than you think you do, you need initiatives to draw them closer. The Buxton audience is very hands on, and very communicative. For Barlow, institutions should build up a family, so that they follow your progress though he admits that this is getting harder in the jet setting age. At Buxton he is conscious of the need to ensure that everyone understands that they believe in their audience. He has no strategy for change at the festival, instead simply wants to build on what has already been achieved.

Barlow is not the only new man at the top at Buxton. After last year's festival, chief executive Glyn Foley retired after 14 years in the post and has been replaced by Randall Shannon. Shannon is someone with whom Barlow has worked before, at Opera Northern Ireland, and they both share the same ethos about Buxton, that they don't want to mend anything that isn't broken, simply make it work better.

Barlow points out that every festival is new every time. That they need to create an experience for the festival goer who has been coming for years. They do this by combining the festival's own productions with the best quality touring productions. At the moment the festival stages two of its own productions each year, but if Barlow has a single ambition for the festival it is that they can build up enough financial foundation to do three full staged operas per year.

But there are three parts to the festival, there is not only opera but also the music series and the literary series. Barlow feels that the festival has now reached a point where each of these would be strong enough to stand on its own. In fact, some people come purely for one aspect, but the festival enshrines the idea of encouraging people to cross the borders between the three areas. There has been extreme growth in the festival's literary arm, an area which is becoming quite competitive. Barlow seeks to position Buxton as a festival which deals with the entertainment associated with books and in fact some of this year's talks have already sold out.

Barlow mentions one final area where change would be possible, the length of the festival. It is clearly his ambition to extend the festival to a full three weeks (it is currently 17 days encompassing three weekends).

Another recent introduction is the Festival Young Artists, appearing for the the first time this year. Barlow says that they have been aware of the fact their audience has always been very supportive of the chorus and they are seeking to encourage this. The market for freelance singers suitable for singing in a chorus and taking small roles in the opera is very competitive, and Barlow is seeking to build on the Buxton brand. This year they are taking seven singers from last year's chorus as Young Artists who will receive eight full weeks preparation as covers for roles in the main stage operas whilst performing in their own right in Stravinsky's Renard and Stephen Oliver's Exposition of a Pictures, presentations of scenes from the main stage operas, and a variety of vocal recitals. In this way, Barlow hopes to show that the festival takes its young singers seriously and to build relationships with them as they grow, whilst at the same time encouraging the audience to show their support and follow the careers of the young singers.

There is one other work at this year's festival which seems to have caught Barlow's imagination, Salvatore Sciarrino's The Killing Flower.  Though this is being performed by Music Theatre Wales, Buxton took an active role in the planning and the Buxton performances will be the UK premiere. Barlow encouraged Music Theatre Wales in their intention to do the work in English (necessitating getting Sciarrino's permission), and in fact Barlow has known the work's translator, Kit Hesketh Harvey, since his school days (Barlow was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and studied at King's School, Canterbury).

As a young conductor, Barlow was always interested in the wider issued of artistic administration. He describes himself as growing up at Glyndebourne where he learned ever element of opera. The regime there under John Cox clearly made a strong impression on Barlow. He describes Cox as wonderful and talks of all his contemporaries there who have subsequently come on in the world of opera. Learning so much about how opera works left him fascinated about administration and contracts, of people's need for commitment. He talks of the two way process between artist and manager, knowning what artists are in it for and what turns them on.

He has been artistic director twice before, at Opera Northern Ireland and in Brisbane, but in both cases he came into conflict with politics, and the battles he was force to fight rather put him off. Now, 10 years on, he feels more relaxed about it. Barlow is in his late 50's and comments feels that a general manager or artistic director of 35 has an uphill struggle. He is very enthusiastic at making things work in Buxton in the best possible way.  He talks about the way that both he and Randall Shannon are interested in the nuts and bolts of opera, something which Barlow likes. He feels that he has a wonderful team around him.

To say that Buxton is in a safe pair of hands is the wrong metaphor. But Barlow combines an interest in the nuts and bolts of opera and festival administration, with artistic flair and wide ranging interests and imagination. A combination which seems to set the Buxton Festival on a strong course.

This year's Buxton Festival runs from 5 to 21 July 2013, with performances of Saint Saens' La Princesse Jaune, Gounod's La Colombe, Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa (La Serenissima), Britten's Church Parables (Mahogany Opera), Sciarrino's The Killing Flower and Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King (Music Theatre Wales), Messager's Fortunio (Grange Park Opera).

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