Die Walküre: Interview with Stephen Medcalf & Stephen Barlow

June 2, 2017

We spoke to Stephen Medcalf, director and Stephen Barlow, conductor of Die Walküre at the London rehearsals, on the 2017 season at the new Theatre in the Woods. They talk about their passion for Wagner, being part of the inaugural season at West Horsley Place and the relationship between director and conductor.

How would you describe Die Walküre?

Stephen Medcalf: It’s an extraordinary love story with a very dark undertone.

Stephen Barlow: On top of the love story,  there are two things I think that are really important. It’s a very delicate and painful journey through a father and daughter’s relationship and seeing this relationship breakdown in such a painful way (Wagner is a master at this) is quite an extraordinary thing to see. Lastly, Die Walküre is really alive with conversation. It’s really a conversational opera with wonderful huge set pieces but the drama unfolds in a conversational music theatre. Not a lot of people think of that at first but it’s ideal for people wanting to try Wagner for the first time.

What is the relationship like between conductor and director?

SB: Terribly good actually!

SM: Brilliant obviously!

SB: We’ve worked often together and we’ve known each other for a very long time and coincidently we both feel in a very similar way about this piece [Die Walküre].

SM: I can’t tell you what a difference it makes and people always talk about the relationship between conductor and director and unfortunately such is the nature of our profession, there often isn’t one really. You kind of bump into each other in the rehearsal room and get on as best they can. Stephen [Barlow] and I have worked here a lot and Stephen is also as ever present in the rehearsal room unlike some conductors and therefore we have continual dialogue which is essential to making sure that the drama and the music are absolutely fully entwined together which is the whole point of Wagner – that combination of music and drama being inseparable.

Are you looking forward to being one of the first to direct/conduct in the new opera house?

SB: For me it’s one of the most exceptional events that can happen in one’s artistic life. It is one of the most exciting things to contemplate. Opera houses just aren’t built very often and this is going to be a wonderful jewel and opportunity to be involved, to be the pioneers of it, to set it up on its feet is really quite a privilege. It’s wonderfully exciting!

Why should people experience opera?

SM: The main reason to attend opera is to have your heart strings tugged and your emotions engaged, your whole senses really. Theatre is often more an intellectual activity sometimes, opera kind of touches those parts that you’re not always conscious of. Words can’t really describe what opera does. Music just has that capacity to really engage your emotions and senses and perhaps, that’s for me, why I do it. That’s why I love it.

What is the most enjoyable part of being a conductor/director?

SM: I think for me the rehearsal process is the most enjoyable. I don’t get to perform myself but I find that the process and the unlocking and things coming to life and the first few rehearsals when you make a breakthrough and you start to feel you’re on the right track. That is incredibly rewarding. Once you get into the theatre, it all gets complicated and technical, in some ways that’s a harder thing to get pure enjoyment from. It’s demanding and a challenge, but for pure pleasure, it’s the creative rehearsals in the studio with just a few people, the pianist, the maestro and that wonderful rehearsal atmosphere. That atmosphere of discovery.

SB: I’m lucky enough to continue with the performances, but one of the most exciting bits for me is when I see all the technical sides of it coming together in the theatre with the costume, the wonderful lighting and the designers vision in full glory and then the orchestra arrives, and then all of a sudden we’re looking at a really amazing conglomerate beast coming together. That’s a thrilling moment actually.

London rehearsals of Die Walküre, with Stephen Barlow, Stephen Medcalf, Morag Boyle, Becca Marriott, Gemma Morsley, Anne-Marie Owens, Tanya Hurst, Mari Wyn Williams, Lauren Easton and Felicity Buckland, May 2017. Video/photos by Nisha Haq.