ARTICLE: Barrie Kosky talks opera and Australia’s ‘dangerous’ contradictions

I saw this article in the Australian’s Review today. I do like a good article that shares my disappointment with Australian opera – boredom with the blandness of it, the lack of much new, they way the same old production is trotted out again and again. WA Opera opened its production of the Magic flute this week (a production a friend quite kindly referred to as “familiar”) which is so far from the typical audience response to the sell out frenzy of Barrie Kosky’s latest production (trailer linked below). I certainly haven’t given up on Australian Opera, for even in Perth there are attempts to make something more – Lost and Found is a new company who so far have put on a opera-cabaret hybrid and an intimate fringe show, and from what I’ve heard Perth is keen for more innovation of this kind. At the end of the day, I don’t think anyone wants to see opera relegated to a historical novelty. I’d like to see Opera live, and I have hope that it will.

The 2008 essay ‘On Ecstasy’ is published by Melbourne University Press – a discussion and explanation of it is on ABC radio national Life Matters. The 2010 interview with Peter Conrad can be read here.

19 July 2014
From The Australian Review

Once considered the impetuous hellraiser of Australian opera, Barrie Kosky is today feted in Europe as the art form’s redeemer. And, as Julian Tompkin discovers, he still has strong opinions about his homeland.

THE administrative building of the Komische Oper certainly isn’t one of Berlin’s more fetching. While commanding premium real estate on the storied Unter den Linden boulevard, the sombre edifice references a different epoch — when this part of the world was known as East Berlin, and pragmatic Soviet ­architects were busy filling the yawning gaps left by bombs with concrete. Cheap indeed, but not altogether cheerful.

It is an incongruous spectacle, considering the company’s success following Barrie Kosky’s arrival as artistic director in September 2012. While many of the world’s opera companies have begun to buckle all too spectacularly — San Diego being the most recent — the Komische Oper has reinvigorated its reputation and bottom line under Kosky’s watch from this unassuming concrete bunker.

Box office sales are up almost 20 per cent and his enchantingly sensorial interpretation of The Magic Flute has played to more than 40 full houses in Berlin to date — 46,349 people have rushed through the gates since the show ­debuted in late 2012. That’s eye-­watering figures, and all from a company that once seemed to be headed for the post-­reunification scrap heap.

“The Magic Flute is exceptional,” Kosky says of the multimedia spectacle he dreamed up with illustrator and animator Paul Barritt and co-creator Suzanne Andrade. “It’s a phenomenon. It’s not normal. We’ll never ­repeat that. It plays to 100 per cent capacity. There are no tickets available. It’s become this phenomenon, and you only get one of those. This will never happen [to me] again.” Crowning his own show a phenomenon may appear “classic Kosky” — a man little known for his artistic modesty — were he not spot-on. The production recently triumphed in Los Angeles and Minnesota, and now waiting eagerly in the stalls are Helsinki, Madrid and the Edinburgh Festival. Kosky, in the meantime, is deep in discussions with the Bolshoi and companies in China and Japan.

The official YouTube trailer for the Berlin production has racked up over 65,000 collective views, with the LA show’s promotional video ­almost neck and neck. For the sake of comparison, Opera Australia’s official YouTube channel highlights for its critically ­acclaimed recent production of The Magic Flute has fewer than 5000 views. In an era when you’re measured by your hits, it’s phenomenal indeed.

Then there’s his recent crowning as best ­director at the International Opera Awards in London, which has served only to fan the flames of his new-found European celebrity.

“It’d be churlish to say that winning a prize is not nice,” Kosky ruminates, sinking back into the couch and pointing to his glistening new award plonked nonchalantly on the windowsill. “It’s a nice thing, but it’s more recognition for the people I work with and the people that I inspire to work well. It’s great and it goes on the mantelpiece, and you get on with the next show.” The ascent of Kosky, who will speak in Melbourne tomorrow as part of the Neon Festival of Independent Theatre, and his mainstream popularity in Berlin are both remarkable and historic. Not only is he the first non-German to head the ­Komische Oper, he’s also Jewish. Germany, and especially Berlin, may have reckoned with its demons long ago, but the scars of the Holocaust still run deep here. The Nazi regime also erased a significant sector of the nation’s artistic pool — and few suffered more publicly than the ­Metropol-Theater, the predecessor to the Komische Oper.

Initially ordained the Theater Unter den Linden, the Metropol was reimagined in the late 19th century as a bastion of political satire, ­raucous revue and the audacious ­operetta that would proffer the immortal soundtrack to Berlin’s golden 1920s, immortalised in cabaret.

The operetta scene — which took off in Germany in the mid-19th century as a gaudy counterweight to the country’s more collegiate grand opera productions — would give rise to composers such as Jacques Offenbach, Jean Gilbert, Leon Jessel, Kurt Weill, Emmerich Kalman, Paul Abraham and, its most renowned proponent, Johann Strauss II. All, of course, were Jewish. The Metropol was, of course, doomed.

“Barrie’s influence on German opera will prove utterly pivotal,” says Hartmut Weischer, publisher of Berlin-based classical music magazine Van. “He is reviving a tradition of mixed cultures — the melting pot that Berlin once was. He is reviving a culture extinguished during the war and the rich and varied tradition of the Metropol, and changing the way we see opera. Yes, some say he’s not producing ‘high culture’ — but to be frank I think they are simply jealous of his success.” The debate surrounding unterhaltungs­musik and ernste musik — or entertainment music and serious music — still rages in Germany. Exploited by the National Socialists to demarcate the Germanic from the Jewish, it still occupies significant column centimetres and academic treaties in a country where Beethoven, Wagner, Handel, Brahms, Schubert and Bach remain passionately revered beyond the wildest dreams of most football stars.

Kosky’s move to stage West Side Story at the Komische Oper enraged some opera purists, affronted at the thought of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical being performed anywhere near the Unter den Linden. The show has since proved a box office coup — vindication of Kosky’s controversial gamble. Similarly, his decision to stage foreign language productions has been radical, as was installing subtitle panels on the back of each chair in the auditorium with multiple language options, including Turkish — the language of Germany’s largest immigrant population, and not a traditional opera market.

Kosky’s motives are clear — to bring opera back to street level. And for that he’s unapologetic. He’s been called everything from a visionary to a heretic, with one befuddled German opera critic reproaching him for turning the ­Komische Oper into an aural supermarket.

“I say it’s not a supermarket, it’s actually a very, very high quality delicatessen,” Kosky chuckles mischievously, removing his trademark round specs. “And I love a high-quality delicatessen. Who doesn’t?

“I never set out to provoke anyone or to shock. I think what is difficult for both Germany’s media and academic world is intellectual multi-tasking. They are so far behind on the idea that I can be simultaneously reading The Brothers Karamazov and putting it aside and turning on The Simpsons and getting enjoyment. That’s just how I operate and there is no choice. It’s life.” The irony of his iconoclastic credentials in Europe is not lost on Kosky. Born in Melbourne to a family of Hungarian, Polish and Russian postwar immigrants, he eternally felt at odds with Australia — maligned by its sport-worship and what he saw as its unripe and fundamentally myopic artistic and intellectual life — a thought he explored in his 2008 essay On ­Ecstasy. It was time to “return home”.

But any apparitions of a grand homecoming were short-lived — the continent would hardly prove accommodating to the brusque Aussie upstart. Quartered to the Schauspielhaus in ­Vienna, Kosky sized up against the calcified corpulence of a few centuries of heritage and came off second-best.

“Vienna had been the city of my grandmothers — they had both lived there for a time and regularly went to the opera,” he tells me sombrely. “Let’s just say it didn’t turn out as I imagined.” Kosky skipped town the day after his contract ended and has never looked back.

Beleaguered but hardly subjugated, he decamped to Berlin in 2005 — a city notorious for its enlightened ideals and artistic freewheeling. That’s unless you’re referring to opera, of course. But Kosky wasn’t prepared to lose again.

“He’s genuinely talented, highly original and really knows how to entertain,” Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini says of his contemporary and friend, adding they are in discussions regarding a future collaboration at OA. “His style is unique and very important … you have to remember that opera has always been designed to play to an audience — it was never supposed to be elite. If we perform opera and nobody comes, then we’ve failed. We must continue to rework and reconsider and reprogram to bring audiences into the theatre, otherwise we will go out of business.” Kosky’s success has rendered him a celebrity in Berlin, the city that’s also home to classical patricians Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim.

Kosky’s collegial gratitude seems somewhat aberrant of the provocateur who, in 2000 just before he fled Australia, baited an audience at the Brisbane Powerhouse, declaring, “I’m not interested in the likes and dislikes of the audience. I’m interested in my likes and dislikes.” But while he maintains he is little changed from the brattish young idealist who left Australia swinging in 2001, time and distance have reset his perspective. “A lot of my demons about Australia have been laid to rest over the last 13 years I’ve been away,” he states, clawing his bejewelled fingers through his greying beard.

Physically, age has been generous to Kosky — his once eccentric ubiquity now distilled into a refined fortitude. He’ll be turning 50 in a few years. The trademark eyebrow ring has gone. The leaden earrings, too. But the mischievous glint in his eye is still as incandescent as when he crash-landed in the early 1990s with his transcendental, erotic and award-winning The Dybbuk — replete with naked torsos, butcher’s hooks and a simultaneously simulated exorcism and orgasm.

Kosky spent his 20s and 30s as the pre-­eminent and precocious ratbag of Australian theatre and opera, polarising audiences and critics here and abroad with his acerbic wit and abrasively visceral vision. “As if taste has anything to do with theatre,” he writes in On ­Ecstasy, reprimanding critics of his production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, replete with half-dead hermaphroditic mermaids and a toilet erupting with mock faeces. “The baritone smeared himself with the excrement, ate it and sang. The more radiant the music became, the more he ate and smeared. I was, however, delighted that many people found this scene not tasteless, shocking or grotesque, but beautiful. As it was intended to be.” Kosky’s lacerating tongue has commanded almost as many headlines as his artistry. He has made a sport of lobbing aural grenades at Australia from abroad, most notoriously in his 2010 interview with Peter Conrad for The Monthly, where he lambasted the state of the Australian opera scene as “shit the like of which wouldn’t be served up in the worst provincial theatre in Europe” and described leaving Melbourne as like being liberated from a “concentration camp”.

“Australians get defensive and childish and immature and react ‘Well, if you don’t like it don’t live here’,” he says, chuckling. “You’d never get that in Germany. Criticism is part of the deal. It makes you better and work harder. [But] I can go back to Australia now and really enjoy being back knowing I’ll never live there.

“Look, I am just as naughty in Germany as I was [in Australia], in fact probably more. In ­Europe people expect you to have strong opinions — it’s encouraged. When you are young and in your 20s, you should be encouraged to slag off and say what you want and put provocative statements out and be contradictory; that’s all part of it. And there should be more of it. And I find it distasteful that it’s not encouraged more in Australia.” “Barrie’s very black and white about what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’,” Opera Queensland ­artistic director Lindy Hume says. “I tend to see a few more shades of grey, while generally agreeing the opera scene in Australia is not as dynamic as it should be.

“When I came back to the opera world after 10 years away directing festivals, I was shocked at how little had changed. The irony,” Hume, who is also a Berlin regular, continues, “is that he’s a really sensitive, kind person. For all his scary outspokenness, people assume he has a hide like a rhinoceros, which he doesn’t. Some people just don’t want their boat rocked, and Barrie just has to rock the boat.” For all of his acerbic critiques, Australia ­remains fundamental to Kosky’s narrative. He professes to harbouring a soft spot for “fellow Aussie wanderers” passing through Berlin, and still draws on his homeland for artistic reference — although not always in the most flattering manner. For his upcoming collaboration of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West with the Zurich Opera, Kosky is using the 1970 Aussie thriller Wake in Fright as his foundational ­aesthetic reference point.

“Australia is this weird combination of Wake in Fright and Strictly Ballroom,” he whoops, as if stumbling upon the definitive equation. “It’s passive aggressive masculinity with sequins. This whole Australian obsession with camp is hilarious. Everything is fabulously fucked up. Australians are not really good at dealing with the contradictions of life, and for all this talk about easygoing and outgoing, there is this passive-aggressiveness that lies under everything, and a very dangerous and dark masculine energy. But it’s all just sun-creamed over.” After speaking indefatigably for well over an hour, Kosky uncharacteristically pauses and takes a sip of water. He considers the heavy rings on his fingers and then looks towards the window and on to a street that’s borne witness to so many of the world’s catastrophes.

“I have never felt more at home anywhere,” he says soberly of Berlin. “There is a process of self-examination that comes with living in such a place. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say every day I am plagued by doubt. It’s not that I run to my apartment and sob hysterically in the corner of the room over a bottle of vodka, although I have been known to do that. Self-doubt, unfortunately for us artists, is a motor for creating good work. But it suits me. Berlin and middle age suit me just fine.”Barrie Kosky will speak tomorrow at Southbank Theatre as part of the NEON Festival of Independent Theatre.