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Komische Oper Berlin director Barrie Kosky is unlikely to return to Australia, where arts funding is suffering successive cuts. In contrast, he says, ‘the arts are in the DNA of western Europe’. By Steve Dow.

Barrie Kosky’s ’Saul’ heads to Adelaide Festival

Barrie Kosky
Credit: Felix Drobek-Truesdale

The stager of dreamscapes has become rattled by the reality of the weather. Inside his apartment, half a dozen floors up a block in Berlin’s Schöneberg district, wearing a white T-shirt, shorts and ever-present spectacles, the Melbourne-born opera director Barrie Kosky sits at his big, pale wooden table and speaks of the teenage cataclysm of seeing Leonard Bernstein feverishly conduct the New York Philharmonic. He can see the demonstrative conductor as his artistic template.

“I’m very intense in my work, and in rehearsal I shout out things as the performers are singing and I get up on stage,” he says, generously circling his hands, a single ring on a little finger. “I move and sweat a lot.”

Kosky has just come back from a short break in Spain, taken during the weeks in which Germany’s opera houses close over summer. Berlin’s air is heavy with humidity. Ninety minutes into our interview, rain has started to pound the vaulted wall-width window behind us and flood down the glass door opposite. A small plastic rainbow wheel attached to the balcony furiously spins off water.

Kosky’s story returns to age three-and-a-half, when he saw the curtain rise on a Marionette Theatre of Australia production of The Water Babies – “I went into another space and dimension” – to when his Hungarian “opera freak” grandmother, Magda, took him to Melbourne’s Princess Theatre to see his first opera, Madama Butterfly, then to age 15, when he witnessed Bernstein conduct like a “mad penguin” miming a “sprinkler system” with torment, joy and passion.

By 18, Kosky had seen 200 operas, and was steeped, too, in musical theatre, classical repertoire and dance.

He continues to enthuse until the story breaks apart. At precisely the moment this 49-year-old son of a Richmond furrier speaks of Bernstein’s inspiring investment of himself in his work, thunder claps and we see lightning strike past the rooftops at our eye line. It is as emphatic as Kosky’s memory of Mahler’s Second Symphony under Bernstein’s baton, or Wagner wresting opera from the Italians to more exulted heights, as though it were the Germans who invented the art form.

Appointed to the Komische Oper in the former East Berlin in 2008 and taking over the company in 2012, Kosky speaks a fluent, Australian-accented German when required, though he still cannot think in the language, and has to stop and translate directions to his German-speaking performers when, say, staging Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with its native libretto. That makes for exhaustion by day’s end.

His latest work, however, was originally written in English for the English, Handel’s oratorio Saul, about the usurped king of Israel, with a libretto by Charles Jennens. The work was originally presented in concert form in 1739 because of a ban on acting out biblical stories on stage in an opera in the sectarian-divided 18th century.

I have four times now viewed a recording of this production, staged last August at Glyndebourne, an East Sussex country house a couple of hours from London. Saul is a striking cover version of an Old Testament yarn, and Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy will be bringing it to Australia for their inaugural Adelaide Festival in March, including British bass-baritone Christopher Purves as the titular lead. They say it’s a “masterpiece” from Kosky, an artist “at the peak of his powers”.

In Glyndebourne, I marvelled at the flamboyant costumes on the big chorus of ecstatic Israelites celebrating David slaying Goliath then darkly urging the Philistines be smashed for threatening their God-like royalty. Marvelled, too, at the way Kosky, alongside choreographer Otto Pichler, has pushed his singers and dancers to be acrobats.

Purves, as Saul, who has been described as “thickset as a prop forward”, and whom I met in London the day before meeting Kosky, even does a backflip amid the surging chorus, a volte-face to demonstrate that the king has become unhinged.

The Brit pours personal truth into Saul’s growing Lear-like madness, and Kosky, with characteristic bluntness and mocking humour, provoked Purves to access these depths, while at the same time drawing inspiration for David from Terence Stamp’s role as a family-destroying interloper in Pasolini’s cinematic 1968 masterpiece Teorema.

There are several precedents now for Saul as an opera, but in Kosky’s hands we have homoeroticism as the enigmatic David (countertenor Iestyn Davies in the original production; Christopher Lowrey in Australia) kisses Saul’s smitten son, Jonathan (Australian tenor Adrian Strooper will take over from Paul Appleby in the role). Then, a ravaged Saul suckles milk from the artificial breast of a hermaphrodite Witch of Endor.

The Australian production is a homecoming of sorts: Kosky himself was the youngest ever Adelaide Festival director at 29, in 1996, drawing younger audiences to the festival even while his own productions earned him clichéd epithets such as “enfant terrible”.

Even a five-star notice in the conservative British Telegraph last year began with the reviewer’s “degree of scepticism” that Saul would be “safe” in Kosky’s hands, given that the Australian’s 2011 take on Rameau’s Castor et Pollux “wallowed in a slag heap and featured a kinky fixation on little girl’s knickers”.

The critic didn’t say whether he had also chanced upon Kosky’s 2003 production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, restaged at the Komische Oper in 2013, in which Kosky had a prophet, Nekrotzar, sit on a white plastic toilet out of which never-ending excrement poured, then smear himself with the fake shit before eating it.

“Many people in the audience found this scene offensive and tasteless,” Kosky recalled in a 2008 essay, “On Ecstasy”. “As if taste has anything to do with theatre.”

Against one wall of Kosky’s apartment, opposite the kitchen benches, is a piano.

Purves earlier told me Kosky is a good piano player: “We had a wonderful dinner with the then head of Glyndebourne, David Pickard, and Jakub Hrůša, the conductor of the work I’m in now, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Barrie, and they were all playing on the same piano. You have the bass, the middle, and Barrie was at the top end. I was filming on a mobile phone and Barrie kept looking around and waving to the camera, while the other two were very serious.

“I would think he wanted to be a performer at some point in his life. He’s certainly flamboyant enough to carry it off, but who knows?”

“Yeah, yeah,” confirms Kosky, “but I realised I couldn’t do it as well as I could direct. I wanted to be an actor, then I wanted to be an opera singer, then I wanted to be a conductor, a concert pianist. But I never really enjoyed it: when I was doing acting at school, I always felt something was not quite right. It didn’t feel authentic. I feel no need to perform, at all.”

 

At 15, as a Melbourne Grammar student, Kosky directed his first play, Büchner’s Woyzeck, a dark tale about a soldier subjected to torturous experiments, and as a result decided he would direct as a career.

He’s fulfilled his dreams, but Kosky’s immersion comes at a cost. “I don’t really have much of a private life,” he says. “Certainly for the last four years, where I’ve been running a company, and four years before that, travelling and meeting people and putting together the program. Since 2008, I have not stopped. Sometimes, in weeks of doing 16-hour days — I know it’s not healthy. It comes at a cost, that I live and breathe opera.”

So he’s not partnered at the moment? “I am partnered at the moment. I never talk about my private life with interviewers.” But hasn’t he just indicated he lacks the time to devote to a relationship? Kosky says his career “doesn’t give the time that I want, but then you use — you enjoy the time, because it’s very precious”.

Thunder grumbles around us. “I had a bit of a wake-up call this year, I hadn’t realised over 18 months ... ” Thunder booms. “Jesus Christ!” He dashes to the balcony door. “Oh, fuck, that’s coming in here.” He slams the door, but then it jams. “I did this once before,” he says as he mops up the spillage on the floor. “It’s flooding in. The guttering’s blocked, or it’s overflowing.”

Eventually he returns to the table and I return him to the story of his wake-up call.

 “I realised that over 18 months I had done eight productions both here and overseas, and that was the most concentrated period of work I’d ever done in my life.”

Did the pace impact his health? “It did in a way, because I started to realise, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore’. I had a major panic about this and felt very exhausted and tired, and then of course I go into a rehearsal thinking, ‘How can I get through this?’ And it’s like a drug; the adrenalin hits you, and you forget about it for six or seven weeks.

“Then you finish and go cold turkey and think: ‘What am I doing this for? This is unsustainable. I’m not 30 years old and I don’t need to do it anymore.’ I get three times more offers than I can actually do ... I’m completely booked out now until 2021.”

Kosky tells me most of the major Australian festivals have tried to tempt him back with artistic directorships, as well as the Sydney Theatre Company, although not during its current effort to replace the short-lived reign of Jonathan Church, who parted ways with the STC board after just nine months.

He gives a sound case, however, for why he’ll stay living in Berlin and working in Britain and Europe beyond 2022, when he intends to step down from the Komische Oper at the expiration of his renewed contract. Here, opera is part of the cultural chatter. “The arts are in the DNA of western Europe.”

Kosky speaks of the “staggering” subsidisation of opera and other culture in Germany. The arts budget has just been increased in Berlin by more than 5 per cent, he notes, drily comparing it with the Abbott–Turnbull governments’ successive arts cuts since 2014. The arts should be made compulsory in Australian schools, along with the teaching of additional languages, he says.

He has just taken on development of a new musical for a New York and London run, and a Berlin-based film project. So how will he create “holes” in time for his private life?

“The personal relationship, you have to set aside time for that. It’s really hard. It’s a challenge. But I also have to create the space. I don’t have time to do anything, really, except create and run the house. That’s okay. That’s the deal, that’s what I’m paid to do. That’s why I was put on the planet, and the reason for my existence.”

As for his childhood home, to which he has in the past applied trenchant criticism: How does he feel about Melbourne today?

“Look, a lot of my Melbourne stuff was connected with my childhood sense that something didn’t quite fit, and a natural antagonism I had with being labelled as an enfant terrible and having my personality discussed, rather than my work discussed. And I think a lot of my early aggression with Melbourne was to do with the fact I felt there was this pigeonholing of me and an attempt to portray me as a dilettante. I’m stronger [now]. Reviews to me are like mosquito bites. They might cause a moment of ‘ouch’, but they go.

“I have a lot of Melbourne and Sydney friends who live overseas now, and I don’t tend to think of my life and my needs based on one place, which is very healthy. Melbourne doesn’t occupy this magnetic positive or negative effect on me; it’s a place that I enjoy visiting. It’s a place my parents and some important friends live, still. It was a place where I was lucky enough to be given opportunities and experience, without which I wouldn’t be here now.”

That’s a drastic turn of mind to diplomacy for Kosky. Perhaps it’s the influence of his Freudian-schooled psychiatrist speaking. The rain eases slightly, so the director ushers me out of his apartment.

Walking to the next block, police have converged on the intersection to direct chaotic traffic, as the flood partly submerges lines of cars parked on either side of the street. The atmosphere remains humid, waiting for the next unexpected movement in the air.

 

Steve Dow travelled to Berlin with the assistance of the Adelaide Festival.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Opera glasses". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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