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A. J. GOLDMANN talks to director Barrie Kosky, who scored a mega-hit at Los Angeles Opera with his production of Die Zauberflöte in 2013. This season Kosky returns to Los Angeles for a double bill of Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle.

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Kosky’s Los Angeles-bound Bluebeard’s Castle, at Oper Frankfurt in 2011
© Monika Rittershaus 2014
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Kosky at the Komische Oper in Berlin
© Gunnar Geller 2014

"We're very careful about who we go to bed with," says Barrie Kosky. The Australian-born intendant of Komische Oper Berlin is talking about how he chooses his production partners. In late October, Kosky directs Los Angeles Opera's double bill of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Bela Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, an unlikely pairing if there ever was one. This is the director's first appearance at the house since his fanciful staging of Die Zauberflöte, which was one of the company's critical and popular highlights of last season. That production, a collaboration with the innovative British theater troupe 1927, combined silent-film techniques, Fleischer Brothers-style animation and pantomime. Kosky is well aware that his new L.A. venture is a very different undertaking.

"It's going to be interesting, because of course the L.A. Opera is going to say, 'From the director of The Magic Flute,' and everyone will go, 'Ooh! It's going to be animation,' but it couldn't be further from the aesthetic and the world of The Magic Flute," he tells me by telephone from his Berlin office in early June. 

Kosky's relationship with Los Angeles Opera began unexpectedly, when Christopher Koelsch, L.A.O.'s president and C.E.O., decided to scrap the company's old Zauberflöte aftera friend recommended the new production at Komische Oper Berlin. "He was given a tip three days after the premiere, and Christopher got on a plane within forty-eight hours — I think he was at the third performance — to say he wanted to see if we could do the show in Los Angeles a year later. It happened very quickly," Kosky says. 

The production, which was also a hit in Minnesota last April, and which Kosky says will be seen in many international cities in the coming years, was arguably his biggest coup during his first season at the Komische Oper, a season Kosky inaugurated with his own marathon twelve-hour production of Monteverdi's three extant operas — L'Orfeo, Ulisse and Poppea — performed back to back. 

Two years into his tenure, Kosky has furthered the practice of inviting younger and more daring directors to the house than had been the norm, a tradition started by his predecessor Andreas Homoki, who ran the Komische from 2003 until 2012 and is now the intendant at Zurich Opera. Kosky also gently overturned the company's longstanding tradition of performing works in German translation. For instance, the 2012–13 season included the premiere of Olga Neuwirth's English-language American Lulu and Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, the company's first outing in Russian. This past season included another foray into Russian repertoire, Prokofiev's Fiery Angel, as well as Kosky's production of Rameau's Castor et Pollux, first staged at English National Opera. 

But while introducing this reform, Kosky sees himself as guardian of the company's philosophy — the mix of opera, musical and operetta that forms the core repertoire of the house. It was a tradition that Homoki renewed in the early 2000s, even as he presented operas by Strauss and Wagner. Kosky has since stricken such works — Rosenkavalier and Meistersinger in particular — from the program, arguing that they belong to Berlin's other two houses. (He even went so far as to announce an unofficial ban on Wagner during the composer's bicentennial year.) Yet, like Homoki before him, Kosky is taking the house in new directions. The 2013–14 season included Bernd Alois Zimmermann's epic Soldaten, a coproduction with Zurich Opera. Featuring an orchestra of 120 and sixteen singing roles, Die Soldaten is positively Wagnerian in everything but length; the two-hour running time is its only claim to modesty. The idea of the same company putting on Die Soldaten and West Side Story in the same week might seem crazy, but for Kosky that's precisely the point. "This mixture of big operas and major twentieth-century pieces and Russian operas and Baroque and operettas and musicals and all things that have been part of the Komische Oper's identity for the past hundred years — this wild, fabulous mix of styles — has proved to be very successful with the audiences and with us," he beams.

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Kosky’s Los Angeles-bound Dido and Aeneas
© Monika Rittershaus 2014

Already, in the short time that Kosky has been in Berlin, attendance at Komi­sche Oper has jumped by nearly 20 percent (attendance currently stands at 85 percent of capacity), which is no mean feat in a city with three opera houses, especially when the other two happen to be under the musical leadership of Daniel Barenboim and Donald Runnicles. "The second season has even been more successful than the first season, which is very satisfying, because it means that all the instinctive ideas I had about what directions the house should go and the repertoire and the way it should be done have proved to be successful," says Kosky. "That we were so successful with so many things has even surprised me." In addition to Die Zauberflöte, his first season included another sold-out hit, Paul Abraham's rarely seen operetta Ball im Savoy, also in his own production. In his second season, Kosky staged more box-office coups with his production of West Side Story (songs in English, dialogue in German) and a second operetta rarity, Nico Dostal's Clivia, in a high-camp production by Stefan Huber. Kosky says that according to the house's market research, 35 percent of the Komische audience comes from outside Berlin, and the average audience age is forty-four. By contrast, Die Zeit reported in 2010 that the average age of German operagoers was fifty-seven.

Kosky enforces high quality-control standards whenever his productions travel. His Dido/ Bluebeard was first staged at Oper Frankfurt in 2011. "I said to Christopher, you can only do the shows if you bring the Dido from Frankfurt, Paula Murrihy, an Irish mezzo who's just electrifying. It's her role. It's her production. I can't do it without her," Kosky says. The director also insisted that L.A. Opera use the premiere cast of Bluebeard from Frankfurt, Robert Hayward and Claudia Mahnke (as Bluebeard and Judith, respectively). 

The unlikely idea of combining the two works — separated from each other by more than two centuries — came from Constantinos Carydis, the young Greek conductor who led the production's premiere performances. "On paper, you go, 'Eh? Baroque opera and Bartók? How does that work?' And Carydis didn't even think about the themes. He just thought there was something that echoed with each of the works," Kosky admits. From the beginning of the collaboration process, the director knew that he wasn't going to try to force such disparate works into a unified set or production concept. "It really wasn't until we started working on the pieces that I realized that there were connections with the themes," he says. "Both pieces are about arrival and departure in different ways. Both operas have a couple and the complexities of love in different ways as the central element of the pieces. And the third thing is, both pieces have a degree of sadness and melancholia running through them," he continues, adding that he is interested in allowing the audience to make subjective connections between the pieces. "I think there's something about the combination that works really, really well. It's a wonderfully emotional, challenging evening," he says. In Frankfurt, the production was successful enough to make it back on the program for three consecutive seasons. It even traveled to the Edinburgh Festival in 2013. 

For all their vast differences, both the Bartók and the Purcell are dear to Kosky's heart; in fact, he finds that they fit well together on a double bill because of their contrasting musical idioms. "The worst thing you could do with the Bluebeard is to try putting it together with another piece like that. You can't. That piece is so phenomenal. It's one of the scores of the twentieth century for me, and I can never get enough of that music," he says, adding that his Hungarian grandmother introduced him to it when he was ten or eleven years old. "And Dido is something that's been with me since my school days. I sang in the chorus in an all-boys production of it at Melbourne Grammar School," he says, suppressing a laugh.  

Kosky enjoys working with Koelsch and admires him for the bold direction in which he's taking L.A. Opera with productions such as this one. Like the Komische, the West Coast company has been increasingly focusing on non-standard repertoire in recent years and in doing so has challenged assumptions about what constitutes success for operas nowadays. "We don't have high-definition broadcasts here, and we're successful, and we do very challenging work here, and we're successful," Kosky says firmly. Acknowledging both the challenges that many American opera houses face and the different funding model that exists in Germany, where opera houses receive up to 90 percent of their budgets from government subsidies, Kosky says that varied and even daring programming is the key to keeping opera flourishing. "You want an international opera landscape that's very diverse. You don't want all companies and all opera houses to be exactly the same. That's just a recipe for disaster." 

"I think what's great about what we've tried to achieve in the past two years is that the diversity of the repertoire is outrageous," he says, shifting again to talking about the Komische Oper, which is the main locus of his activity for the foreseeable future. "The fact that this month alone, the same choir and orchestra and a lot of soloists will be performing in Rameau and a 1930s jazz opera with a transvestite in the main role" — a reference to Clivia — "and Soldaten by Zimmermann and West Side Story. Show me another opera house in the world that does that." He lets the challenge hang in the air for a few seconds. "There is none," he finally says, "and that makes me proud." spacer 

A. J. GOLDMANN is OPERA NEWS's Berlin correspondent. He also writes for Gramophone, The Wall Street Journal and The Forward.

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