The Influence

Opera and film director Constantine Costi discusses how Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ has influenced his approach to staging. By Kate Holden.

Constantine Costi

Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602).
Credit: National Gallery of Ireland

Constantine Costi is a busy man. Co-director of Redline Productions at Sydney’s Old Fitz, he also has a flourishing career directing productions such as Werther, La Traviata, Carmen and Wozzeck for Opera Australia, for whom he is currently preparing Verdi’s Otello.

On stage or screen, his work is distinguished by its bold visual impact, its radical re-envisioning of established classics and its emotional energy.

He has worked for many companies in Australia and abroad, from independent productions for Pinchgut Opera and Belvoir’s 25A program to mainstage works at Vienna State Opera or Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin, as well as a swag of theatre credits. This year Costi will be assistant director with Chen Shi-Zheng on Opera Australia’s The Ring Cycle.

Costi nominated The Taking of Christ (1602) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio for The Influence. The work was painted in Rome and is now displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Constantine, tell us about yourself.

I’m first and foremost an opera director and that’s my main passion, focus and continuing obsession: working in this complicated, grand medium. I’m also co-artistic director of the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo. And I work in film as a director.

Just a bit of this and that. How does it all relate to an interest in Mannerist art?

When I start any process of directing a piece, which is usually months and months in advance, I’ll find artworks that have something to say to the opera or play that I’m directing. I think there is a strong link between opera and painting: the idea that opera will take something from reality and suspend it, make it sort of heightened and non-naturalistic – that’s the same thing that you get from a painting. Particularly with the stuff from Caravaggio.

It’s that old trope in the opera, right: “Oh, they’re saying the same thing over and over again”, but I view that as an extended moment in time. In reality maybe that’s a two-second moment, but the opera will find its incredible emotional resonance, which will make that moment feel like a minute or two minutes – and a painting does the same thing.

You sit there and you drink in an extended moment in time, which allows you to access both the detail and the deep emotional resonance. So I feel they’re very simpatico in an unexpected way.

And on a technical, craft level I think it’s been beneficial to my work. I’m not trained in art history, but I have such a passion for it.

To study these grand paintings and go: How have they constructed these scenes of a hundred people, or whatever? And then to apply that to my work with the chorus. They were doing it 500 years ago with painting. I’m just taking what they did and trying to emulate it in my own small way. There’s skills and craft that can be learnt from, particularly, the great masters of Italian painting.

Of course opera and Mannerism arose in the same place at the same time: Monteverdi was in Venice in the 17th century as they were doing those vast paintings of crowds on the Canale Grande, and Caravaggio was making his best works. The era of spectacle.

The taking of Christ had been painted a hundred times before, and Caravaggio had to ask: What’s my take on this? There’s a similar element of that in my practice. Otello has been staged hundreds of times. I’m taking that same subject matter, but what’s my take on that material? Replicating subject matter, pieces that people are familiar with, is really part of art history, right?

It’s about the parameter – okay, it has to be the taking of Christ, it has to be Verdi’s Otello – but how am I going to put my identity or spin on that material to both reflect me and the world that I’m living in? It’s a challenge but also a joy because you’re able to do two things at once. Look at how we’re similar to back then, how we haven’t changed that much and then look at how we have changed. That’s what’s exciting about taking old material and doing it again.

Did you grow up with visual arts?

No, there were no paintings at home. [My parents are] beautiful, passionate people, but as an angsty, sensitive, artistic teen that was my escape. Going to the library, and buying huge compendiums of the complete works of Edvard Munch or Matisse or Caravaggio, and really drifting off into that world was an important part of surviving with an artistic temperament at an all-boys school. A real nerd is what I’m saying.

The painting has a strange backstory: it was painted in Rome at the height of Caravaggio’s success, misattributed soon after, then it went astray, and was finally found in the 1990s in Ireland. The Jesuits had it in a dining room. When did you encounter it?

Surprise surprise, I didn’t go to schoolies when I graduated; I saved up and travelled around Europe and found myself being kicked out of art galleries well after closing time. I found my way to Ireland to see this painting. I remember being so captivated by it and hypnotised by it – which Caravaggio often does, there’s an unknowable quality where you feel just deliciously as if you’re wading in black water. The chiaroscuro comes around you. It’s both tightly framed and expansive, that black hole of infinity that surrounds it.

And it always stuck with me as this moment of incredible drama. How can something be so beautiful and so messy? That’s what struck me: it’s the beauty of the mess. John’s cape is engulfing them and people’s heads are sort of melting and it’s confusing where the light is coming from. It’s a messy, dangerous moment and you can’t help but feel intoxicated at the same time. I think that holding those two things together is something I found completely staggering and something I’ve tried to apply to my own work. These things can be two at once, right? And Caravaggio takes it to the extreme because he was such a messy, tortured, horrible person but was given this incredible ecstatic gift.

When I went on to look at the mechanics of the painting, thinking why do I feel so engrossed, there are so many little hints, particularly the light source reflecting on the soldier’s armour: it’s coming from you. The idea is you’re in that scene, holding a lantern, and that is the viewer’s light shining back. That is something I’m thinking about in my work: where do I want to put the audience? Are they observers? Are they being engrossed in some way? How do I want them to feel and how do I want them to be involved? I’m reviving Otello at the moment which is, again, dangerous, messy, it’s a violent world. Where do I want them to sit? I think Caravaggio did that so well, and it’s what’s so exciting about it, particularly this painting.

I’m such a student of these great artists, and you always look at your own work with both pride and from between your fingers, right? I don’t feel necessarily a sense of intimidation, but a sense of awe. And god, if I can do even 2 per cent of the power of this work, I’ll be completely happy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "Constantine Costi".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.