Global Role Berlin's Opera Scene Flourishes

Director Barrie Kosky is taking Berlin's Komische Oper in flamboyant new directions, reflecting his vision of culture as a great, sensual bazaar.
With three major opera houses, Berlin is increasingly grabbing global attention for innovative productions and stagecraft.

 

Barrie Kosky cut his theatrical teeth in his native Australia, where he directed both opera and theater. He was the manager and creative director of the Vienna Schauspielhaus from 2001-2005. He joined the Komische Oper in Berlin in 2012. He spoke to Handelsblatt's Regina Müller about Berlin's current status as the engine of the opera world.

 

Handelsblatt: Mr. Kosky, how do things currently stand with the percentage of sold seats?

Barrie Kosky: We gather data on the percentage of sold seats on a quarterly basis. At the end of the last season we were at about 85 percent. At the moment we are above that.

How important is it for a successful director to also be a finance expert and a manager?

There are artistic directors who are more like managing directors. I am an artist. Naturally, I am also occupied with the issue of the budget every day, but in a more abstract way.

Not that long ago, people in Berlin were saying that three opera houses were too much for one city. Is that still an issue today?

That has completely vanished today. It was a major issue at the beginning of Andreas Homoki’s period as director. Closing the opera was even proposed. But he fought against that, as did (former Berlin culture minister) Thomas Flierl and (former Berlin mayor) Klaus Wowereit. Andreas also went out on a limb to change the house’s GDR (East German) image and traditions. This strong, artistic signature caused a scandal, but people could see that the Komische Oper definitely had an identity. In Homoki’s last five years no one spoke of closure again. And in my two years that has also been the case. It is over.

Do you work together with your colleagues at the Berlin State Opera and the Deutsche Oper?

I am very happy to be working here in Berlin at a time when the three opera directors speak to each other for the first time within living memory. That cannot be underrated in the theater business, where there are many egos, petty jealousies, vanities, and grudges. I have gotten to be friends with both of them. We talk regularly about planning, repertoire, content. We often have differences of opinion, but there is no competitiveness. I am not a competitive person at all. I do not want to base my art on that at all. To think... your failure is my success! No, the opposite is true, each success at a Berlin opera house is a success for the other two opera houses at the same time.

An opera house must be a delicatessen shop, not a supermarket. Barrie Kosky

Is there any a risk of oversupply?

On the contrary. You have to imagine that we have 25 major opera premieres here in Berlin per season. There is nowhere in the entire world where things are being sung and performed at this level. And then there is the enormous repertoire that is being played here. The entire world envies Berlin for that.

Why is there always the threat of cutbacks in the cultural sector?

Although art in Germany, in comparison with other countries, is still so supported, we get a laughable 1.5 percent of the pie. But as soon as the overall situation gets worse, then there is immediately talk about art.

Video: Don Giovanni Trailer, Komische Oper Berlin.

And yet you still praise the German system of subsidies?

I come from a country where art is not taken as seriously as it is in Germany. There, it was always said that Germany is the model for how art is dealt with in terms of public financing. I hope it stays that way. Because Germany is the motor for the entire opera world. About half of the existing opera houses worldwide are in Germany. That also means that Germany is a laboratory for young singers, conductors and directors, and as such, it has a responsibility.

Under your direction, the Komische Oper is not just showing opera, but also many operettas. Is that not sacrilege?

Today, people think that popular culture is an invention of the 20th century. Mozart did use the hits of his time in his operas. And especially during the time period between the first and second world wars in Berlin, there was no pigeonholed thinking, because at the time there were these unbelievable artistic fireworks, this unleashed creativity.

You deliberately rehabilitated the Berlin operettas from this time period?

This time is my model. But not for reasons of nostalgia, because the Weimar Republic was a problematic time period. But I say, it must have been fantastic to go to the operetta or the cabaret at that time and sitting there were Bruno Walter and Max Reinhardt and Klemperer… and Schönberg!

Barrie Kosky, the head of Berlin’s Komische Oper.

 

They did not differentiate between serious and entertainment music?

No, because you can’t say that Kylie Minogue is better than Arnold Schönberg. Only that Kyle Minogue is not Schönberg. Naturally, the audience knows the difference, but the time of separating the entertaining from the serious is over. That is why we show “Moses und Aron” one night, and then on the two following nights show “West Side Story,” and Baroque opera and then “Ball im Savoy.” I am very interested in this issue because it is part of the philosophy and vision of this opera house. We are not just working at an opera house that followed the radical concept of Walter Felsenstein, but also at a house that previously, as the Metropol-Theater, was one of the most important operetta houses in Germany. I want to combine both: Felsenstein’s ideals with the Metropol traditions. You can combine both.

Were you sure that your idea to exhume the operettas would be successful?

The operattas were a major risk. I wanted to do Offenbach and the Berlin operettas because they had a connection to the city and to the history of the house. We very consciously choose “Ball im Savoy” by Paul Abraham as the first piece, as a trademark as it were. The premiere was a fantastic experience, because we could say that the piece could be experienced in Berlin for the first time since its world premiere in 1932. That was the last great premiere before the take over of power in 1933. And today, so lush, so technically perfect, and with so much irony. It is not a shabby grandma operetta, not a musty summer theater production. We are trying to take the operetta seriously and to not just see it as a footnote of German culture. But without this triumphant beginning it would not have worked.

And what of the requirements for criticism, the educational mandate?

Critical political demands and good entertainment are not mutually exclusive. An opera house must be a delicatessen shop, not a supermarket. It is very personal, opulent and very sensual. That is my model of how you should present an opera house. Aladdin’s Delicatessen!

Delicacies and exotic items from all over the world?

That is part of my identity. I was born in Australia, but my family comes from Hungary, Russia, Poland, England, and so on, with many complicated, conflicting influences. For me, diversity is authentic. I come from a culture of exile with many shocks, full of cultural diversity. This idea, that one must decide, is most absurd. Culture is a bazaar.

 

 

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