The most influential thinker in history as the subject of comedy? "Marx in London" gives Karl Marx a gentle sendoff at the end of his bicentennial: entertainment and food for thought in equal measure.
The critic of capitalism whose writings would eventually transform the world insists on a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. But incapable of dealing with money, he has to be bailed out repeatedly by his industrialist friend. That same founder of an ideology bordering on religion has an illegitimate son whose existence must be kept secret from the world at all costs. His wife, a daughter of nobility, ends up destroyed not through loss of caste and privilege in the wake of revolution, but due to her profligate and absent husband.
This could be the material of a fascinating psychological analysis or of bitter criticism. Or comedy. As Marx in London is.
Commissioned by the Bonn Opera and based on a scenario by German stage director Jürgen R. Weber, the English-language libretto by Charles Hart was set to music by Jonathan Dove and premiered to standing ovations and bravos on December 9.
Never a dull moment in the Marx house
The British composer's 29th opera tells the story of 24 hours in the household of Karl Marx, who is living in London after many repatriations. Under observation by a government spy, the title figure sees his furniture carted off due to unpaid debts.
Bartering off his wife's silver collection, he gets lost in visions of a money-free utopia before losing the silver too. As if that were not enough, a young man turns up who happens to be Marx's illegitimate son, resulting in hectic activity in an effort to keep his presence and identity secret. The deus ex machina who saves the day is Marx's wealthy friend Friedrich Engels.
It was actually Engels who only on his deathbed admitted that Karl Marx had an illegitimate son. With historian Tristram Hunt as an adviser, the rest of the story in this production is also based on history, but given a light touch.
Marx has been taken seriously for so long that any serious opera nowadays might run the risk of sounding ideological, explains Jürgen R. Weber. "There is this idea that this guy was a very scientific, deep thinker who had the key to a utopia. For a lot of people, that still exists. In a way, Marx was and still sometimes is a kind of a religious phenomenon."
That storytelling approach is matched by Jonathan Dove's score with touches of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass. Those elements do not sound like copies, but fit into a clever whole that can wax profound yet is always accessible. "I'm not frightened of tunes," says Dove, who has created enduring repertory works including Flight and The Adventures of Pinocchio. "I feel like there is enough earnest experimental avant-garde music. But I did feel there's an enormous shortage of comedy in opera."
Humor in the 21st century
Comic operas have in fact been extremely rare for roughly a century. Dove's colleague, Jürgen R. Weber, says that the roots for this reach back far. "There's an ideology like: 'If you understand it, it can't be art.' I think it was actually Nietzsche who said something to the effect of: Even if you can't see the bottom, it could be shallow anyway. Even nowadays people think: "This must be true because I don't understand it.'"
With experience in developing and directing popular German TV soap operas including "Gute Zeiten schlechte Zeiten" (Good Times, Bad Times) and "Verliebt in Berlin" (In Love in Berlin), Weber knows what works with audiences.
So does Jonathan Dove. Yet that calculation does not enter into his creative processes, he says, explaining, "I've been very lucky to discover that if I can make the sounds I want to hear and if I can write a show that I want to go and see, there will be other people who will also enjoy it. Of the people in the theater, I'm probably having the best time."
The team originally considered a libretto with a mixture of English and German as was actually spoken in the Marx household, but later opted for English alone. "I also did hope that it was going to be funny," says Dove, "and I realized quite early on that although I understand German reasonably well, that's quite different from being able to sing German in a way that's entertaining. In English I can set words in such a way that the audience will get the joke."
Not a Marxist
Not gags provoking belly laughter but situational comedy stimulating light tittering is the result of the Dove/Weber collaboration, with German subtitles assisting the audience in the Bonn Opera. Understanding Marx in London doesn't require extensive knowledge of history, just ears open to the vivid colors in the orchestra and the voices of Mark Morouse as Marx, Yannick-Muriel Noah as his wife Jenny, Marie Heeschen in the role of his daughter Tussi, Christian Georg as Freddy, the illegitimate son, Ceri Williams as Helene, the housekeeper, and Johannes Mertes as Engels.
After many twists and turns of fate (and of his personal finances), one of the greatest German thinkers of all times eventually settled in Great Britain and is buried there. This production in cooperation with the Scottish Opera could be seen as a gift from Great Britain back to Karl Marx's home country 200 years after his birth.
"I only know this: I am not a Marxist" said the author of Capital. That could be the central idea of Marx in London.