Barrie Kosky’s peripatetic career has led him to work throughout Australia and Europe, before finally establishing a true connection with Berlin. Still, for the Melbourne-born theatre and opera director, nothing says “home” like a rehearsal room. “It just happened that theatre discovered me, and performance and music discovered me, because the very same time that I started to think, ‘Who am I? How does this relate to me?’ and felt that disconnectedness, was the very same time I was experiencing music: Mahler symphonies or puppet shows or musicals or opera. And it was very linked.” By Emily Bitto.

Where’s home for theatre and opera director Barrie Kosky?

Komische Oper Berlin intendant Barrie Kosky.
Credit: Jan Windszus Photography

Approach Barrie Kosky – the man, or one of his prolific stage productions – with any set expectations and you are likely to be surprised. After seeing a number of his early shows, beginning with his spectacular and gloriously irreverent King Lear in 1998, I expected more of the same from his Magic Flute this year, only to encounter a brilliantly stripped-back version that relies almost entirely on animated projections to provide the mise en scène. Likewise, going to meet Kosky himself in Berlin, I am expecting a loud, camp persona, something befitting his now infamous self-bestowed title of “gay Jewish kangaroo”. Instead, I am greeted by a quiet, unassuming, middle-aged man, dressed in brown cotton pants, an old navy zip-up trackie top and bright blue running shoes, his greying hair slightly dishevelled, his eyes twinkling behind the recognisable round metal-framed glasses. It is 2pm, and Kosky is just back from rehearsals. It is probably not even the middle of the day for him; he routinely averages 16- or 17-hour workdays. But he is relaxed and cheery as he offers me coffee, introduces me to his dog, Sammy, and settles in to the corner of a black leather sofa. “Come on, fling something at me!” he says.

At 51, Kosky is an artist in his prime – established, assured of his success and at home in a way that has taken him a long time to feel. He has been the intendant at the Komische Oper Berlin since 2012, a role he says translates roughly as “top boss person”. He personally directs at least half of all shows the Komische Oper puts on each year, as well as being responsible for the general running of “the organism that is the house”, which employs about 450 people. Long gone are the days of being miscast as the enfant terrible of the Melbourne theatre world, a crown Kosky has always despised and rejected. “It’s a horrible title,” he says. “I hate it. Hate it! And I never was one!

“It’s insulting in a way, too, because it somehow implies that it’s all smoke and mirrors and that you’re just young, you’re a child and you’re a smartypants.” Kosky left Australia almost 20 years ago, and has lived in Berlin since 2007, a city in which he feels “connected” in a way he has not elsewhere.

Berlin, with a yearly culture budget of almost half a billion euros, is the perfect place to stage the kinds of large-scale, innovative, risk-taking productions for which Kosky has become famous. “Opera in Germany, particularly, is very very different from anywhere else in the world,” he says. This is due in part to the level of government funding – the Komische Oper obtains 87 per cent of its funding from the city of Berlin, as opposed to the 5 or 6 per cent that even the largest Australian theatre companies could expect – but also to the differences in the opera-going audiences. In Berlin, Kosky says, happily, the audience are “very experienced, quite knowledgeable, and quite curious. They’ve seen 10 Carmens and 20 Bohèmes, and they just don’t want to see anything that’s boring.”

Barrie Kosky has no interest in realism in the theatre. “I don’t need to go to the theatre to see anything to do with realism anymore,” he says, “because Netflix does it better.” With the frequent, spread-fingered emphasis of a piano player, he speaks passionately and lyrically about opera and its essential cultural function. It is “in a way, the only art form we have now that is linked right back to ancient Greece and what the ancient Greek writers were trying to do”. What opera uniquely offers, Kosky believes, is the ability to deal in “rituals, dreams, associations, emotional landscapes … That idea of the darkness starting and then going into a world – it can’t not be seen as being linked to dreams. And the theatre curtain is a form of eyelid, which shuts and opens and reveals, transforms.”

Another benefit of working in Europe, according to Kosky, is the respect given to mid- and late-career artists: “Older artists are treated with a hundred times more respect [here]. Older directors, older designers, older actors. They’re treated very much like the tribal elders that I think you need. And it’s not the case in Australia. Sadly, it’s not the case.” On a material level, for example, he says, “if you’re in a German orchestra or a German chorus, if you’re in the institution longer than 15 years they can’t sack you, you have a job ’til you’re 65”.

Kosky himself is approaching this “elder” status. Given the wealth of wisdom and experience he has to offer, I ask him what he thinks Australia could do differently when it comes to culture. Aside from its lack of support for mid-career artists, his primary frustration with our cultural landscape is what he sees as a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of government support for the performing arts. “This is what I try to scream out when I go back to Australia,” he says, his mouth open, exaggerated. “Don’t you know the government subsidy is not, as the media and some politicians say, to give arts slackers taxpayers’ money? The government subsidy is, in most cases, there to enable you to reduce the ticket prices.” The result is that “the audiences are much more diverse … because you can get a ticket here for €10. So, the elitist argument goes, because there is no elitism.” He is careful, though, “not to do the Germany versus Australia thing. It’s really important because it’s unfair to Australia … It’s a different history.”

Of his childhood in Australia, Kosky speaks almost rapturously, and claims, “I wouldn’t be here doing what I do if I hadn’t grown up in Australia.” I ask him why he believes this to be the case. “For me,” he explains, “to have that mix of the Australian childhood, plus the reform Judaism, plus my Eastern European family, plus that I was very comfortable with my sexuality from a very early age, is the right alchemical ingredients for me. It works for me.” He has vividly described these central elements of his childhood in On Ecstasy, an essay he wrote more than a decade ago detailing in rich, almost hallucinatory language, the experiences of consuming his grandmother’s “golden” chicken soup; of playing between the racks of slippery-soft fur coats hanging in his father’s warehouse; of his first experience of being taken to the opera, about the age of seven. “I was bombarded with extraordinary experiences,” he says.

Still, I cannot help but wonder about the darker underside of Kosky’s Australian childhood, the intense solitude conveyed in his descriptions of his young self, the boy who would spend hours in his bedroom “conducting” Mahler symphonies with a plastic chopstick. Beyond the expansive and confident hand gestures, Kosky also has a parallel habit of foot jiggling. When he talks about his childhood, I notice his foot ticking subtly at the level of the coffee table. At his prestigious high school, Melbourne Grammar School, which he describes as a “weird antipodean nostalgic re-enactment of [an] English public school”, Kosky certainly felt out of place. “It was sort of me and the Asian boys at school, you know,” he explains of his outsider status during those years.

Kosky relates a story familiar to many Australian children of migrant families, in which his school lunches became a symbol of his difference: “I got, you know, dark rye bread with either chopped liver or very, very thick Italian salami with pickled cucumbers, which made the bread soggy,” he recalls. “I took out my rye bread, everyone used to laugh at it.” Although his manner is lighthearted, the symbolism is telling – the “Aussie” boys as white bread and Kosky as chopped liver – and I wonder what cruelties and humiliations are concealed behind it.

And yet, in a position in which many other young men – whether from a different cultural background, or becoming aware of their homosexuality, let alone both in Kosky’s case – might have felt bullied or ostracised, Kosky remarkably appears to have found a way not only to make peace with, but in fact to embrace, his otherness. Kosky was, he says, “very early aware of myself”, and he remembers thinking, “Oh, I can see a way to survive through all of this; it’s just being completely the opposite.”

I probe Kosky to try to understand from where this extraordinary resilience and sense of self was drawn. “Music is the key,” he says, simply. “It just happened that theatre discovered me, and performance and music discovered me, because the very same time that I started to think, ‘Who am I? How does this relate to me?’ and felt that disconnectedness, was the very same time I was experiencing music: Mahler symphonies or puppet shows or musicals or opera. And it was very linked. At a very early age I was really identifying with female opera characters, when I was, you know, 13, 14, 15. I am Tosca; I am Carmen.”

His early access to culture, it seems, showed Kosky the world that awaited him, and he set about educating and immersing himself in all its aspects, in preparation for his inevitable emergence into that world, when the time came.

Music, then, became home for Kosky. “If I was to look at where I feel most at home,” he reflects, “I would say in a rehearsal room.” And this perhaps explains why he has been content to move around the world, following where the music has taken him, and continues to do so. “The idea of being proud to be Australian doesn’t exist for me,” he says, in part because nationalism is something he finds horrible, and in part because he likes being “a diaspora Jew whose family come from all over the place”. Despite being an established artist in a secure and prestigious role at the Komische Oper, Kosky plans to wrap up his time as intendant in 2022 and keep moving.

But there again is the downplayed melancholy beneath Kosky’s recollections of his peregrinatory career. “I used to be very worried about it, you know,” he says. He puts on a melodramatic whine: “I don’t feel at home anywhere. Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Vienna. Oh! Ahhh! ” He used to have “terrible paranoia sort-of Kafka-like chase dreams. Of being chased out of places or told to leave places”. He puts it down to “an inherited Jewish, diaspora paranoia”. But time has been kind to Kosky, and at 51, he tells me, he doesn’t worry about it anymore. He credits the city of Berlin, and a fabulous psychiatrist he has been working with for almost a decade, with this hard-won equilibrium. “This city since the mid 19th century has attracted all sorts of people like me,” he says. “I think it’s been a place that’s been, for a hundred years, very artist friendly, I think it’s a place that’s been for over 100 years very open, very liberal … I think I belong to a collection of wandering souls that have found this place very, very welcoming. And long may that continue for future generations.”

It is to our collective discredit that Kosky never felt at home in Australia. That we could not hang on to him. Still, he continues to visit, and will tour his Magic Flute this year for the Perth and Adelaide festivals, in late February and early March, respectively. More importantly, singular and brilliant, Barrie Kosky has found his home in the rehearsal rooms of the world. He is doing what he loves and continues to create his magical and dreamlike productions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Barrie on abroad".

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Emily Bitto is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize. Her second novel, Wild Abandon, will be published in September.