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Opera, says Barrie Kosky, is all about bringing the dead back to life – as will be seen in his Adelaide Festival production of The Golden Cockerel. By Romy Ash.

Opera director Barrie Kosky

Opera director Barrie Kosky.
Credit: Jan Windszus

It’s the middle of the night in Vienna, very late. He’s a night owl, they tell me. But when Barrie Kosky answers, he’s soft and fuzzy around the face. He looks, he sounds, exhausted. “I’m a little bit quiet, and my voice is – I’m sorry if my voice sounds a bit hoarse.”

I ask him about his day and he says, no, he does not want to talk about his day. We both seem surprised by this answer, and sit together in his silence. He runs his hand over his cheeks, his forehead, pushing his short hair away. He looks as if he’s trying to send his face over the back. Perhaps if he sends that tired face back there, it will be replaced by a fresh face.

His other hand rests against the belly of his dog, who – when he moves the camera to show me later, when we have both recovered from his recalcitrance – is asleep, curled on the couch beside him, the colour and shape of a croissant. He likes to walk the streets of Berlin, his home, humming or singing softly as he walks his dog. Barrie Kosky, Melbourne-born opera director, intendant and artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin for the past 10 years. This season (2021-22) will be his last as intendant, though he will continue to make work for the house.

Eventually he says: “I had a long day of rehearsing Don Giovanni. It was a good day, but it was a hard day.” He says “good” and “hard”, and I hear bad. “Tomorrow,” he says, “it might be a terrible day. Don Giovanni is a very steep mountain to climb. For the Wiener Staatsoper [Vienna State Opera]. It’s a very famous opera, Don Giovanni, and it’s a very famous opera house and it’s a big pressure to do this opera, in this opera house, in this city.” I see, when I follow this up a month after our interview, that the opening night of Don Giovanni was live streamed, opening to an empty house as Austria descended back into lockdown. The stop-start, stop-start of the past two years continues.

I ask Kosky about the rehearsal room, he says no, he will not speak about the rehearsal room. “You’re not the first writer who has asked me, and you’re not the first writer who has been denied details.” Again, we sit with this, his exhaustion, the silence. He starts a sentence, “The rehearsal room is like a kitchen…” and then stops himself, reiterating that no, he does not want to speak about the rehearsal room. All I wonder is what went on in the rehearsal room, today, specifically. He says it should remain a mystery, for those “outside”. It is where the “important work is done”, but the mystery, yes, it shall remain mysterious.

An image runs through my mind. It’s the dancing noses from Kosky’s staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose with the Royal Opera in 2016. Based on Gogol’s short story The Nose, in Kosky’s production the noses are huge, bouncing, absurd, severed and dancing, the dancers’ legs made silly by bulbous costumes. The noses are classic Kosky, whose style is palpable, always recognisable for its irreverence, absurdity and a certain propensity to shock. Bounce, bounce, bounce, the noses cross the stage.

Kosky saw 200 operas before he was 18. The grandson of Belarusian, Hungarian and Polish Jewish emigrants, his grandmother started taking him to the opera when he was seven years old. He was taken to everything. He was a sponge. It wasn’t something the whole family did, it did not interest his brother or sister; but Barrie, he was obsessed. He’s emphatic. “I was obsessed, and the only way you can work in theatre is if you are obsessed. Because it’s such an anachronistic, strange thing to do in the 21st century – it’s very important that we keep doing it because it’s essential to us as a culture, to who we are – but it’s a slightly weird thing to do, and you can only do it if you are obsessed. And I was obsessed.

“My parents were taking me – when I was 11, 12, 13 – my parents were taking me to see queer theatre. I was seeing stuff that now, parents would go, ‘Eeeerrrrhhh, maybe not.’ I was being taken to R-rated theatre for adults, as a child. I was seeing adult things – the ’70s and early ’80s was very different to now, in terms of what parents would think appropriate. I keep on saying, ‘What were you thinking when you took me to that show?’ ”

These were his formative years. His identity, his interests, his personality, he says they’re all connected to going to the opera, going to the theatre, listening to music. He says it’s inseparable from who he is. In opera, he says, “It wasn’t the normal things that interested me – it was the tragedy, it was the blood, it was the violence, it was the emotion. I wasn’t interested, really, in the harmless pieces.” As a child he discovered things other people wouldn’t come across until much later in their lives.

In his book On Ecstasy (2008) Kosky writers about being 15 years old and attending a New York Philharmonic concert in New York with his father, where he saw Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler’s second symphony. It was a life-changing experience, not just from the music, but from watching the music go through Bernstein’s body and out through the orchestra. He writes of the sweat flying above Bernstein’s head: “At the magnificent climax of the last movement, he resembled nothing less than a mad penguin doing an impression of a sprinkler system ... I had never seen a body wrenched with so much torment, joy and passion.”

At the Komische Oper Berlin, Kosky produced a very broad spectrum of work. He took risks, presenting many 20th-century operas – big difficult pieces – and also rediscovered Berlin operettas from the Weimar Republic, before Hitler took power in 1933. He says a lot of these pieces had not been performed in Berlin since the ’20s and ’30s. He brought back a large slice of Berlin’s history to the Berliners themselves. “It takes an Australian Jew to go to Berlin, to give the Berliners what they don’t know they had,” he says. “A part of their history … but the whole Jewish German thing is a whole complicated thing and it’s very contradictory and is a never-ending labyrinth.”

Since his first season in 2012, he’s also been part of a project to bring opera to communities in Berlin who, he says, had previously been ignored, particularly Turkish communities. Berlin is the largest Turkish city in the world outside Turkey. The project took buses full of opera singers and musicians and went into old people’s homes, community centres, kindergartens. He says you don’t always bring community into the opera house, you bring the opera to the community. “It’s outrageous how kids react to live performance,” he says. “It’s very gratifying. It’s fantastic.”

For next year’s Adelaide Festival – of which he was the youngest artistic director at 29 – Kosky will direct Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel. The production premiered this year in France and Kosky says it’s an exciting piece. It’s not often done, not in Europe or in Russia, and it was Korsakov’s final opera. He has always wanted to do it. You might know Korsakov from his famous violin piece, Flight of the Bumblebee, which is from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Kosky describes The Golden Cockerel as a wonderful combination of macabre fairy story, erotic frustration and erotic desire. The audience enters a world of fantasy in a piece that was written as part political satire, part fairy story. Now, Kosky begins to talk. He sure can monologue:

“On the notes – the notes, even in their day they were ignored! The notes in the text – it comes from a folkloric Russian tradition, the music and the text and the story. We are not performing the piece in Russia. We are not performing it to a Russian audience. Therefore it is irrelevant to try and re-create a Russian folkloric fairy story opera, it’s irrelevant. So, my first job is to think, ‘Well, what actually is this story about? What actually is the text? What do I feel from the music?’

“Everything in an opera must come from the music. And then with my team [we] work through how we think this piece – in this case The Golden Cockerel – would work on the stage in the 21st century. The piece is often done just as a political satire, and I think the political satire is subtext. I don’t think it’s the strongest thing in the piece at all. I think the central character of the king, this crazy, mad king, is the central interest in the piece, and his relationship with his sons, his relationship with this fantasy woman he creates. Is she real? Is she not real? Who knows? And then his demise into madness, death.

“This is what’s interesting, so I started to tease out what that would mean, how that should come across on the stage … I work in a collaborative artform, no opera can be done by me alone. I have a designer, I work with a choreographer, singers, I work with a conductor, and it’s the most wonderful collaborative artform. So we begin the process, of working on it together.

“The process of reimagining a piece is very exciting because it’s like you are having not only a dialogue with the piece – you are having a dialogue with the past and you are trying to link the past with the present. The future – I’m not particularly interested in it, in terms of theatre. I’m only interested in what I’m working on now. What happens in the future is not my concern.

“In theatre... this dialogue with the past is very important. Without a dialogue with the past, without a dialogue with tradition, you get no change. Innovation only comes from a knowledge of tradition. You can’t say, I’m being innovative, and not understand where you’re coming from. I mostly do old operas – there are contemporary operas I’ve done, I’ve done about 12 world premieres and I still do some new pieces occasionally – but the majority of my work is to take literally dead carcasses and breathe life into them.”

This year he reimagined Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera for the Berliner Ensemble and Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for Komische Oper Berlin, both much-lauded productions that broke with previous iterations. Kosky says of The Threepenny that it’s a flawed masterpiece, very tricky, with a lot of baggage. A production everyone has an opinion about how it should be performed. One of the most influential works of theatre written in the 20th century and there he was, literally behind Brecht’s desk, directing this piece in the theatre where Brecht wrote it. “It was very special,” he says.

“Because the notes and the words are dead, until we bring them – until the singers sing them and the actors play them and the conductors – it’s dead, it’s dead, it’s dead. We breathe life into them. So, we are performing an act of necrophilia with the carcasses, and on the other hand we are constantly actually rebirthing and re-energising the pieces from death.”

I laugh, and at last I see Kosky, his fresh face, the vivacious face he usually shows to the world, as he describes theatre-making as an act of necrophilia, this lovemaking with the dead. I can still hear him in my head: “... it’s dead, it’s dead, it’s dead”. So much drama in bringing it to life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 18, 2021 as "Waking the dead".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.