Stephen Barlow is one of Opera Holland Park’s longest standing directors. He’s worked on ten shows over the years, including the acclaimed productions of Tosca and Jonathan Dove’s Flight, and this summer he’s back for The Cunning Little Vixen. ‘I love the straight up, no nonsense atmosphere of this unique summer festival. CEO James Clutton’s background is in West End theatre production. He approaches opera from a theatrical perspective, which is rare in this musically driven artform.’

Opera vs musical theatre

The theatrical background is one Barlow shares – he’s directed a number of musicals during his career. But although he recognises that opera is the more musically driven of the two artforms, he’s not convinced there are many other differences. ‘You still have to tell a story as sincerely and imaginatively as possible, whether it’s an opera by Richard Wagner or a musical by Richard Rodgers… The only big difference for me is one of acoustics and amplification. In opera you always have to be mindful of the singer’s voice, and not obstruct the visceral vocal nexus with the audience that makes it so thrilling and unique.’

This summer a reconfigured auditorium and social distancing will add to the staging challenges Barlow has to take into account, but he’s looking forward to tackling them. ‘Although at first restrictions like no touching seem frustrating from a storytelling point of view, it’s important to appreciate that without them there would be no live show at all. I think they will be a delightful novelty.’

‘The most spiritual opera ever written’

The Cunning Little Vixen tells a profound story about the cycle of life, but also has some highly comedic moments. ‘It’s a bit Mozartian in that respect,’ Barlow says. ‘Not musically, but in that the mood can switch very quickly from something seemingly light-hearted into real poignancy… I actually think it’s the most spiritual opera ever written, and perhaps the wisest.’

The poignancy of the story comes from its topicality – 100 years after its creation, its plea to respect nature is more relevant than ever – and from the way it captures the full cycle of life. ‘The ending of the opera is like the ending of a long life… The Countess of Wessex described the recent passing of the Duke of Edinburgh as being “so gentle, like somebody took him by the hand and off he went”. I think the last moments of The Cunning Little Vixen can be described in this way too.’


Interview by Philippa Peall