BERLIN (AFP) — The edgiest of Berlin’s three opera houses has been pulling in the crowds since Australian Barrie Kosky began unearthing a little-known repertoire from the turbulent 1920s and 1930s.
The openly gay Melbourne native with a Jewish background has turned the opera scene in the German capital — not to mention traditional business acumen — on its head since he took over the Komische Oper four years ago.
His signature contribution has been programming previously obscure operettas, a lot of them written by Jewish composers in the heady days of the Weimar Republic rather than a traditional diet of standard evergreens.
Operetta, a lighter, often comic form of musical theater, is a niche within the already niche genre of opera.
But few of even the most hardcore fans will have heard of the likes of Nico Dostal’s “Clivia,” Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy” (The Ball at the Savoy) or Oscar Straus’ “Eine Frau, die weiss was sie will” (The Woman Who Knows What She Wants) before Kosky staged them to rapturous reviews and remarkable box office success.
“Before I started working here, we spent a long time thinking about what the house is and what we want the house to be,” the 49-year-old opera and theater director told AFP in an interview.
“I don’t want the house to be easily defined in its work. I want it to be defined as somewhere where all ages can experience something.”
Surprising the audiences
Kosky is known for the subversiveness of his stagings, from the camp and colorful to the minimalistic and meditative.
“I want the house to be defined for its diversity of work,” offering productions that were “very challenging one night and entertaining the next. I want to surprise audiences and to create spaces where we can have different audiences,” he said.
The Komische Oper has always tended to play second fiddle to its more august sisters — the Staatsoper just down the road on the famous Unter Den Linden boulevard and the Deutsche Oper in the former west of the city.
Set up in 1947 by the legendary Austrian director Walter Felsenstein with the remit of staging lighter repertoire in German translation, opera aficionados have always tended to look down their noses at it.
But Kosky has succeeded in making the house hipper and trendier and audience numbers are on the rise.
In the 2014/2015 season, 214,600 people attended 234 performances, equivalent to 88 percent of seats filled, ahead of the two rival houses.
Affordable for all
Kosky dismisses suggestions that opera is an elitist art form.
Germany’s generous arts funding “ensures that the ticket prices are ridiculously low and affordable, which destroys any argument about elitism straight away,” he said.
“You can see a production at the Komische Oper for 12 euros ($13.30). It’s cheaper than going to a sports event or a rock concert.”
But the good old days when audiences of loyal subscribers bequeathed their season tickets to their children had gone, he said.
“Young audiences don’t want subscriptions,” he said. They wanted to pick and choose performances to fit in with their busy lifestyles.
In turbulent times such as today, Kosky is under no illusion about opera’s reach.
“I don’t think an opera production can save lives. What has opera to say about climate change? Or the refugee crisis? On a daily level, nothing really.”
But “I do believe that opera has the ability to change people’s lives in other ways,” he said.
Opera represents “an important part of all that’s good about European culture. There’s nothing like it. Film, television, Facebook, Twitter — nothing can compete with the magic, alchemic glory of watching a voice emerge out of a mouth. That’s something primal, deeply rooted in our DNA.”
Directing Wagner in Bayreuth
Kosky has been invited to direct a new production of Wagner’s “The Meistersinger of Nuremberg” at the legendary Bayreuth festival next year.
While he is contractually not allowed to reveal anything about his concept, as someone with Jewish roots — it was his Hungarian Jewish grandmother who insisted he learn German “as the language of culture” — Kosky admits he has “many contrasting emotions” about Wagner’s masterpiece.
The work is essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art. It was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite operas and its music was misused for propaganda purposes by the Nazis.
“Can you just portray the work as just being a simple fairy story, (given) the history of the piece?”
In addition to running the Komische Oper, Kosky is in demand all over the world as a director.
This season alone, he staged five new productions, pushing him, by his own admission, to his limit.
In his little spare time, Kosky says he does not go to the opera.
“To say I’ve got a night off and I’m going to the theater or opera? No way, Jose. I’ll go to the Sony Center (cinema complex) and watch a terrible Hollywood film,” he said.