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Barrie Kosky: bad boy makes good

Features - Classical Music | Opera

Barrie Kosky: bad boy makes good

by Jo Litson on February 16, 2017 (February 16, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
The one-time enfant terrible is now the toast of Covent Garden and Glyndebourne and runs his own opera company in Berlin.

It’s 16 years since Barrie Kosky, ratbag genius of ustralian theatre, left for Europe. In the intervening years, he has established an international reputation as an opera director, with around 40 audacious productions to his name – none of which have been seen at home.

The last mainstage opera the Melbourne-born director staged here was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck for Opera Australia in 1999. But that is about to change, with three Kosky productions arriving in Australia in as many years. “It’s a bonanza!” he quips over the phone from Berlin, where he has been Artistic Director of the Komische Oper since 2012 – the first non-German to lead the famous Company.

Barrie Kosky's production of Handel's Saul

First up, his rapturously received Glyndebourne production of Handel’s oratorio Saul is the centrepiece of this year’s Adelaide Festival. Then, in 2018, Opera Australia presents his version of Shostakovich’s The Nose, which premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last October. His phenomenally successful 2012 Komische Oper production of The Magic Flute is due here in 2019.

“I am very happy because the three productions are so different,” says Kosky. “I’ve been away for nearly 17 years and the only pieces that have come to Australia have been my small theatre pieces from the Schauspielhaus in Vienna [where he was Co-Director from 2001-2005]. The biggest was Poppea – [his exhilarating reworking of Monteverdi, spliced with Cole Porter songs, seen here in 2009] – which had seven performers in it, but I have not directed a large opera in Australia since Wozzeck. That’s literally an entire 17 years of opera work that I’ve been doing in Europe and America, which Australian audiences have not seen, so I’m thrilled the drought is ending.”

Kosky, who turns 50 in February, is always a joy to interview. Intelligent, nimble-minded, articulate and outspoken, he is a generous, loquacious subject. When he gets on a roll, he even starts asking the questions for you. And, as ever, there is much to talk about – including his Bayreuth debut in July with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Christopher Purves (left) in Barrie Kosky's Saul

Kosky’s visceral, provocative work frequently divides audiences and critics, inspiring both love and loathing, but his production of Saul was unanimously well received, with four and five-star reviews. First performed in 1739, Handel explores the relationship between Saul, the first King of Israel, and his eventual successor David, slayer of Goliath. Driven mad by a combination of admiration, jealousy, love and rage, Saul spirals into insanity and death.

The wildly imaginative production creates a surreal, nightmarishly beautiful Baroque world. The first half is lushly colourful, the cast in gleaming, slightly warped 18th-century costume, performing around an enormous banquet table with floral arrangements, fruit, animal carcasses and stuffed birds. The second part is monochromatic. “At Glyndebourne they all go out for an hour-and-a-half and have their chicken and champagne so, of course, they come back in a very merry mood – and we plunged them straight into the tragedy,” says Kosky with a chuckle.

The production features a series of extraordinary images, from a lactating Witch of Endor to a battlefield with half-buried bodies. Sculpted by light against a black backdrop and floor of dark, crumbly earth (actually a form of recycled rubber called rubber crumb), it is unforgettable.

In a staggeringly good, dramatically unnerving performance, Christopher Purves’ Saul had more than a touch of Lear to it. “Handel and [librettist] Christopher Jennens definitely had two Shakespeare plays in mind when they were writing it,” says Kosky.

“We know they’d seen King Lear and Macbeth. The Witch of Endor scene has so much of Macbeth about it, and there is something of Lear too, with the king, his two daughters and son, and the kingdom being wrenched apart by a mixture of Saul’s jealousy, old age and gradually loosening sanity. You can’t tell me they didn’t have King Lear as their model when they were writing it. The story is very different but the Lear resonance is strong – and King Lear is one of my favourite plays so it just screamed out: ‘Do me! Do me!’”

Kosky was blessed with a remarkable cast at Glyndebourne, led by Purves and Iestyn Davies as David. Neil Armfield attended opening night and said then and there to Kosky that the production had to come to Australia. Kosky knew not all the cast would be available, since opera singers get booked so far ahead. “I said to Neil, ‘if we can’t get Chris Purves, then you can forget it.’”

Purves will indeed star in the Adelaide version. American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey (who played Didymus in Pinchgut Opera’s recent Theodora) is David, with Australian tenor Adrian Strooper (who is a member of Kosky’s company at the Komische Oper) as Saul’s son Jonathan, British soprano Mary Bevan and Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig as Saul’s daughters, and Australian tenor Kanen Breen as the Witch of Endor.

Martin Winkler as Platon Kuzmich Kovalev. Photos by Bill Cooper

The Nose, co-produced by the Royal Opera House and Opera Australia, is also surreal but worlds removed from Saul. Written when Shostakovich was just 21, the absurdist comedy is based on a sardonic story by Nikolai Gogol about a petty bureaucrat called Kovalov who wakes up to find that his nose has gone walkabout. Swollen to human size, the proboscis has taken on a life of its own and is now a higher ranked bureaucrat than Kovalov himself. Kosky’s production includes a madcap, moustachioed police force, cross-dressing vaudevillians and a chorus of tap-dancing noses.

“I find the story so weird and wonderful; you never quite know what’s happening, and he never explains. But I think it’s dangerous to say The Nose is a metaphor for this or that,” he told The Jewish Chronicle when it opened. “I think it is a delicious piece of nonsense, much more connected with Dada and Surrealism, and with the logic of a dream, like Alice in Wonderland. It’s part parable, part Kafka, part Marx Brothers.”

His production of The Magic Flute, created with ground-breaking British theatre company 1927, is wildly different again. Known for its dazzling integration of live actors and handmade animation with a vintage aesthetic, 1927 has toured to Australia with several of its productions including Golem, which Sydney Theatre Company presented in 2016.

Kosky's The Magic Flute, due in Australia in 2019

Using a similar technique, The Magic Flute is presented as a surreal fairy tale. The spoken dialogue by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder has been replaced with written text in the style of a silent movie. Papageno is portrayed as a Buster Keaton-like character, the Queen of the Night is a ferocious spider, her slave Monostatos is Nosferatu, and The Three Ladies are 1920s flappers.

“It’s become this outrageous phenomenon,” says Kosky of the production. “It was premiered in 2012, four years ago, and it’s already been seen by over 300,000 people around the world, which for an opera is pretty extraordinary.”

In July, he directs Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth – though it took a lot of persuading on the part of Festival Director Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-great-granddaughter, before he said yes. “I’d done my Wagner stuff and I thought I had nothing more to say,” explains Kosky. “When I did The Ring [in Hanover between 2009 and 2011] I just found myself resenting him. I loved every bar of Tristan und Isolde, and I’ve got a soft spot for The Flying Dutchman and Das Rheingold, but I’ve got such a problem with some of his stuff. I was doing The Ring at a time when I was feeling really unsure about my place in Germany and what I was doing living here. Before I started working at the Komische Oper it was quite a difficult, weird time, so I sort of said, ‘that’s the end of my Wagner.’”

So, when Katharina Wagner first took him out to lunch to ask him to direct Meistersinger – the only comedy among Wagner’s mature operas and a piece specifically about German culture – Kosky wasn’t keen, telling her that he had “an enormous problem” with her great-great-grandfather, who was an anti-Semite. “She said, ‘so do I!’” he says.

Asking for six months to make up his mind, Kosky was into the fifth month when he read a letter of Wagner’s to his wife Cosima, which hit him “like a bolt of lightning”, showing him a way into the opera. “Suddenly I got very excited,” he says. What’s more, with Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Kosky believes he has “the best singers and actors of these two roles on the planet at the moment.”

Barrie Kosky. Photo by Felix Drobek-Truesdale

“It means that I’m not only the first Australian to direct at Bayreuth, and the first Jewish director, I’m also the first non-Wagner to direct Meistersinger there because it’s only been directed at Bayreuth by the Wagner family. And then along comes little old Barrie from Melbourne…! Well, we’ll wait and see. I’m cautiously excited about the ideas we are going to bring to it [which he is contractually forbidden to speak about]. But I knew that by taking the most German opera in the most German opera house by the most German of opera composers and directing a production that is an investigation of what is German... I mean, you are playing with fire.”

After Meistersinger, Kosky directs Fiddler on the Roof at the Komische Oper. “It’s my de-Wagner antidote, my cleansing show,” he quips. “But the funny thing is – and I kid you not – working on both of these shows at the same time, they are two sides of the same coin. Tevye is the Jewish Hans Sachs and Hans Sachs is the German Tevye. Both pieces deal with ideas of community and tradition and change. If you look carefully at what they say about generations, and who belongs to the community and who doesn’t, and how nationalism is defined in one piece, and how exile is defined as the consequence of going against nationalism in the other, it’s actually very interesting conceptually.”

Kosky has previously staged Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story – remade as a story of star-crossed German and Turkish lovers – at the Komische Oper. Some opera purists disapproved but Kosky is adamant that musicals have their place in the repertoire of an opera company. 

“I don’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals have a place and not Mamma Mia! But people who say that a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical or West Side Story or Fiddler on the Roof, all these big book musicals, don’t have a place in an opera house are ignorant,” he thunders.

“They’re idiots because these musicals were the natural extension of the European operetta tradition when it hit Broadway. The operetta tradition in Europe came out of the opera tradition so this means that you are dealing with the same family. They all contain the same DNA, so if you are talking about opera as an enormous, complex molecular structure then there is absolutely a link between Monteverdi and Oklahoma

“So, do I think operas belong in an opera house? Yes. My production of West Side Story paid for my production of [Schoenberg’s] Moses und Aron. But we have to be very careful with what pieces, how they’re done, and for what reason. If the opera orchestra and the opera chorus and some of the opera singers in the company are involved in it, then it’s completely kosher.”

“Do I think Covent Garden or La Scala should be doing musicals? No. Do I think Komische Oper and Opera Australia should be doing musicals? Yes, every two years.”

Kosky’s contract with the Komische Oper ends in 2022 but he sees his future in Europe. In a wide-ranging discussion, he talks about the history and tradition of opera in Germany, how the arts are such an integral part of the culture there, and the way generous public subsidy not only allows for adventurous programming but keeps ticket prices low – all in contrast to Australia.

“My time in Australia was finished 17 years ago,” he says emphatically. “I know I won’t come back to live in Australia much as that makes my family and friends very upset. I love my family and friends. I love coming back for short trips, I even love coming back to work here but I don’t feel connected or at home in any shape or form here. I have not one drop of homesickness or nostalgia about it.” 

Barrie Kosky's production of Saul plays at the Adelaide Festival Centre, March 5 – 9.