No eating, no speaking!: the secret life of Joanna Lumley’s maestro husband

National treasure status: Barlow has conducted at ENO, the Royal Opera House and across the world
National treasure status: Barlow has conducted at ENO, the Royal Opera House and across the world - Rii Schroer

Last summer, I spotted my friend, conductor Stephen Barlow, from a long distance by merit of his leonine mane. More recognisable even than his wife Joanna Lumley’s golden halo, it bobbed unmistakably on the breeze. A year on, I am striving to get to the bottom of why he and his fellow conducting stars share such lavish magnificence. “Tell me about the hair. Is it to signify Old Testament prophet-style inspiration? And have you ever had a hair-off with Sir Simon Rattle?”

He sighs, used to being asked rather more substantial questions by his inamorata of almost four decades on their hit music podcast, Joanna & The Maestro. “It’s a Seventies thing” he chuckles, over gin and cigarettes. “When I played with the National Youth Orchestra, on the day before concerts, they’d produce three hairdressers to give us all the chop. After that, I swore to have my hair the way I wanted.”

“Still …” he concedes, executing a sly impersonation of a peer running a hand through his manly locks. This is Barlow all over: terrific company and a devoted populariser of classical music, ready to answer even the inanest question. It is customary to refer to Lumley as a national treasure. Her husband has the same status in the music world: the sole opera grandee sans bitchy nickname.

Barlow’s career has seen him conduct at the Royal Opera House, the ENO, and all over the globe. As we meet, he awaits an arduous week of rehearsals for Janáček’s Katya Kabanova at Grange Park. I also winkle out of him that he will be turning 70 at the end of the month. It’s as unconvincing as Lumley’s septuagenarian status, the two eternally spring chickenish.

I’m at the couple’s south London kitchen table to grill Barlow about the secret life behind the suave, conductor’s exterior. I know that he’s been studying Katya since he was commissioned 18 months ago. It’s sustained graft that goes against the stereotype of the emotionally incontinent Wagnerian maestro, more akin to physics or engineering.

Eternal spring chickens: Barlow with his wife Joanna Lumley in 1986
Eternal spring chickens: Barlow with his wife Joanna Lumley in 1986 - Henbury/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

“More than anything else, you have to have a passionate interest in the detail of what happens in scores,” he explains. “How it works. It’s like a car mechanic. You open a bonnet, and you can analyse exactly what’s there. That involves reading a score, working it out, analysing it. All pretty intuitively, but also hearing what’s going on in performance. It’s got nothing at all to do with emotion. Fundamentally, you’re in the place of the composer, offering the orchestra an interpretation, an idea.”

The scores themselves are epic, labyrinthine, every page bearing all instrumental parts. The score for Strauss’s Salomé – one of the shorter operas – is the height of a four-year-old child. How is it possible to hold something that complex in your mind? “At King’s School, Canterbury, choirmaster Allan Wicks would barge in, fling an LP and a score at me, and say ‘Listen to this’; a music master [would] sit me down and say: ‘That’s Rheingold. Here’s the score’. I lapped it up. You can’t just say: ‘I’m a bit of a dominant character’ to become a conductor. It’s lifelong study.”

As to the managerial aspect, Barlow tells a story about how, when young, he would stroll into rehearsals at 10am to speak with everyone, until a manager said: “No, you are the maestro. You must sit in an ante-room, then stride in at 10.25am marking the formal start.” Musicians can rebel. A garrulous Italian orchestra caused him to play the disciplinarian at first. But, then, he returned to his usual honey rather than vinegar until they were eating out of his hand.

He has had issues with divas being divas. Only once he had to insist that either a singer went or he did, as their behaviour was jeopardising the entire production. However, in the main, he is in awe of “the underlying principle of opera that it’s much bigger than any of its huge number of parts: the whole company coming together as the ultimate art form”.

Conducting’s expression of mind via body takes its toll. “Everybody’s style changes their physique. Charlie Mackerras had to have two new shoulders. I’m very relaxed when I conduct, but the tension has to go somewhere. I have problems where the shoulders meet the neck, dizziness. Lots of conductors have back problems.”

On the day of a performance, he eats very little. Coffee for breakfast, half a sandwich at lunch, another half around 6pm. “Eating is something that takes up too much of the body’s energy. I relax over dinner afterwards.” A couple of hours dozing in the afternoon readies the brain. Then a cup of tea, a shower, and on with “a jacket of some sort”.

'You can't just say, "I'm a bit of a dominant character" to become a conductor – it's a lifelong study'
'You can't just say, "I'm a bit of a dominant character" to become a conductor – it's a lifelong study' - Rii Schroer

He’ll greet the singers 45 minutes before curtain up, then sit in the conductor’s room. At 7.25pm, he hears: “This is your call, Mr Barlow” and it’s off to wait in the wings until the intercom says “Go”, then on to the podium to await the stage manager’s green light. He doesn’t get nervous, but maintains focus during the interval, no alcohol touching his lips.

He will admit to moments of transcendence: “Opera is such a huge and beautiful thing. When it’s working, I’ve always imagined the composer opening the door at the back, realising it’s all there, then closing it again. Sometimes everything is so together and tight I could almost stop conducting. The thought passes in a flash and you think ‘Stop that’ because you’re necessary in every way.

“I can’t tell you how it feels with a full opera company and chorus, stage management, technical crew, the costume and wig people, the lighting crew and technicians on the computer, everything cued. I can’t tell you how magical it is that this all starts with you in the pit.” As I leave, I inquire whether he will meditate ahead of final rehearsals tomorrow, deep-breathe. “No, darling, I’m going to have a pizza and lots of red wine,” he beams. Bravo, Maestro.

‘Katya Kabanova’ is at Grange Park until July 12;