Saturday 1 December 2018

One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn

Jonathan Dove
Jonathan Dove
Jonathan Dove has a new opera premiering on 9 December 2018 at Theater Bonn. Marx in London is a comedy, with a libretto by Charles Hart, which will feature the author of Das Kapital during his period living in London. Jonathan and I recently met up to chat about how Marx in London came about, musical styles in opera and the difficulties of writing contemporary comic opera.

The Karl Marx Memorial in Chemnitz
The Karl Marx Memorial in Chemnitz
I was curious as to how Jonathan came to be working on an opera about Karl Marx. The idea arose originally with the director Jürgen R. Weber. Weber had directed Jonathan's Swanhunter (originally premiered by Opera North) at Chemnitz, an opera house which had also co-produced Jonathan's opera The Adventures of Pinocchio. The then intendant at Chemnitz, Bernhard Helmich, in fact an old friend of Jürgen R. Weber's, is now at Bonn. In fact, Chemnitz used to be called Karl Marx Stadt, and there is still a huge head of Marx near the opera house. That Karl Marx's bicentenary is approaching also added fuel to Weber's thinking.

Plenty of farcical elements to Marx's life in London

Surprising as it might seem, there are plenty of farcical elements to Marx's life in London. It would not have been much fun for Marx's wife and maid, but from the outside it is possible to see the funny side. The opera tells the tale of one crazy day, a folle journée. Jonathan found it an intriguing idea, that a figure who was such an ogre to capitalists in the 20th century might have feet of clay and be surrounded by domestic chaos.

Jonathan points out that, whatever side you are on there is no doubt that Marx was a very influential figure who inspired many, though we can certainly argue about to what extent his prophecies have come true, and whether Marxism in fact reflected his own views. All this suggests a grand figure, but domestically he was a bungler and Jonathan finds the fact endearing. Evidently Marx was always broke and the bailiffs were often being called in, he had an affair with the maid and fathered an illegitimate son. Marx's own lifestyle aspired to bourgeois values, and when he was writing the Communist Manifesto he was bankrolled by Friedrich Engels whose money came from family factories.

Karl Marx & his wife Jenny in 1866
Karl Marx & his wife Jenny in 1866
The cast of the opera consists of Marx, his wife (who was an aristocrat), his illegitimate son, his daughter (who wants to be an actress) and the pawn broker, it seemed ripe for comedy. So the opera begins with workmen coming take the Marx's furniture away; volume one of Das Kapital is out and Marx is desperately trying to work on volume two (Engels would in fact finish it after Marx's death). And we are told the tale of one crazy day. There are glimpses of Karl Marx the thinker and dreamer, so that in one scene whilst on the run from the police he takes refuge in the British Museum and dreams of a Communist arcadia. In another scene, which takes place in the Red Lion Pub which was a regular meeting place for anarchists and revolutionaries, he speaks about Capitalism

You can never assume that audiences have any particular special knowledge, so the plot of the opera needed to be self-contained. The comedy comes from the contrast between the grandeur of Marx's ideas and the reality of his life. It will be interesting to see whether the opera successfully travels, Jonathan's opera Pinocchio for instance came with a pre-existing narrative that everyone could latch on to.

It was only by setting English that he felt secure in being able to be funny

The opera is written in English, partly because Jonathan felt that it was only by setting this language that he felt secure in being able to be funny. Initially he approached Richard Bean (author of the play A Servant of Two Guv'nors) with the idea. Bean was interested but wanted to write a play first and produce that, before creating the opera from the play. Jonathan was interested in the idea, but the timing made it impossible. In fact, Bean continued to work with the Marx idea and produced his Young Marx play which was produced at the Bridge Theatre in 2017 and deals with events 20 years earlier in Marx's life.

The librettist of the opera is Charles Hart, someone that Jonathan has known for a long time. Hart's work has included translating Marschner's Der Vampyr for a television version of the opera, translation Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini for Terry Gilliam's production at English National Opera [see my review], and writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera [see my review].

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and Marx’s daughters: Jenny Caroline (1844-1883), Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855-1898) and Jenny Laura (1845-1911)
Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and Marx’s daughters:
Jenny Caroline (1844-1883), Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855-1898) and Jenny Laura (1845-1911)
Initially, the opera company was keeping an open mind about whether the work would be performed in English or in translation. But Hart's libretto is funny and in rhyme, and opera company liked it and decided to do the piece in English. The character of Marx is being played by Mark Morouse, who is American, Marx's wife is played by Yannick-Muriel Noah who is French-Canadian and the maid by Ceri Williams, who is Welsh, so there was no problem with the English.

The opera opens on 9 December and there are then nine performances with the last on 14 February 2019. It will be conducted by David Parry, who conducted the premieres of Jonathan's operas Flight, Mansfield Park (in its orchestral version, see my review), Pinnochio and Tobias and the Angel. Parry has also conducted plenty of Rossini comedies too, so is well placed for the premiere.

Comedy is a tricky thing in opera, and Jonathan has no idea if the audience will laugh

Comedy is a tricky thing in opera, and Jonathan has no idea if the audience will laugh. There has been laughter in the rehearsal room, and it would be nice if audiences laughed but Jonathan feels that is is not the end of the world if they don't. It is not his first comedy, Flight (which was premiered by Glyndebourne Touring Opera at Glyndebourne in 1998) has an element of comedy, and audiences do laugh at the jokes in it, some of which arise because of phrases which become funny because they are sung. Mansfield Park whilst not a farce, is a love story and is certainly not tragic, and The Enchanted Pig had an element of comedy in it.

Jonathan is proud of being able to set English so that audiences laugh, and he points out that in 20th opera comedy largely left the opera house (with the honourable exceptions of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and Britten's Albert Herring). In fact, there are not many people writing comic opera at the moment and Jonathan enjoys being able to make people laugh around the world. There are musical and dramatic reasons for the lack of comic opera, contemporary composers have been attracted to the grandeur and mystery of opera. Operatic language in the 20th century was very much influenced by world events with its mixture of anxiety, despair and cosmic loneliness. But for Jonathan, laughter is part of the human condition too, and Jonathan is attracted to the sheer vitality of opera.

Composers being either post-Wagner or post-Verdi/Puccini

At this point in our discussions, Jonathan introduced the concept of composers being either post-Wagner or post-Verdi/Puccini. The former put the orchestra in the foreground and words are less important (and so hard to do jokes), whilst for the latter it is voices that matter and words are important. Britten is in this latter category.

For Jonathan rhythm and pulse are important too, which means that you can introduce rhythmic surprises for comic effect. And whilst Jonathan does think that his music is technically tonal, it does not follow a hierarchy of keys and is often modal but it is certainly at the tonal end of the new music spectrum and Jonathan calls it pan-diatonic. This makes it easy for Jonathan to combine voices with contrasting intentions, so that it is possible to have a group of characters each with a different emotions. This sort of writing is harder in a denser, more challenging medium.

Jonathan Dove - Marx in London - Theater Bonn
Marx in London by Jonathan Dove and Charles Hart opens at Theater Bonn on 9 December 2018, conducted by David Parry and directed by Jürgen R. Weber, and then in repertoire until 14 February 2019. Full details from the Theater Bonn website.

Jonathan Dove on Planet Hugill:
  • A Brief History of Creation and Gaia Theory - CD review
  • Flight at the Royal Academy of Music (2017) - Opera review
  • Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival (2017) - Opera review
  • From naughty and disreputable to being suspiciously establishment: Jonathan Dove on writing opera - 2017 interview
  • In Damascus and Piano Quintet - CD review
  • Nights not spent alone - Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper - CD review
  • Flight at Opera Holland Park (2015) - Opera review

Elsewhere on this blog:
  •  Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
  • Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass and continuo (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Viol music: RCM International Festival of Viols - concert review
  • Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman (★★★★) - opera review
  • A 20th century monument: Hindemith's five brass sonatas  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Old Bones: Nico Muhly, Iestyn Davies and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera Silent Night - interview
  • Puccini premiere:  Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing (★★★★) -  Opera review
  • Long time ago: Samling showcase at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  •  Home

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