Few other opera director has a better feeling for the sparkling world of operetta than Barrie Kosky. His modern productions, his understanding of Offenbach's humour and magic and the necessity for virtuosic and brilliant performers excite not only the audience at Komische Oper Berlin. Naturally, he's the perfect choice for our Not Quite Opera Month to talk about today's importance of operetta.

Barrie Kosky
© Jan Windszus Photography

Nadja Dobesch-Warlick: First of all, congratulations on your Salzburg Orphée. It was a big hit with the audience and it certainly gave operetta some long-missed international attention. Operetta is in the DNA of cities like Vienna and Berlin, but internationally, it’s a different thing. Do you think you are pioneering a trend?

Barrie Kosky: Well, I may not be the first one, and I’m not the only one, but one of not so many. Laurent Pelly has also directed Offenbach very successfully in the last years at the Opéra de Lyon [Ed: Offenbach’s Le Roi Carotte in 2015] and has brought operetta to new audiences. When I started at Komische Oper Berlin as Intendant, we made a very conscious decision to relook at a particular time of operetta in a particular style. It didn’t start something, but I think it propelled something, and that’s different.

There are, of course, different types of operetta from different eras, the sexy and provocative ones of Offenbach’s time, the nostalgic Viennese ones looking back on the good old days… Who do you think is interested, who is your audience, and who might be interested in what?

I think you’re absolutely right there. Operetta is as broad a Fach as opera is. But operetta only functions properly with a strong relationship between the artist on stage and the audience. Most of the operettas are musical comedies (not all of them, but most), therefore they rely on the interaction with the audience. What Offenbach understood very clearly was that his performers had to be virtuosic and brilliant. I think this continued in Vienna and Budapest and Berlin where the pieces were written for particular performers. The audience went to most of the operetta productions knowing the performers, whether that was Hortense Schneider in Offenbach’s time, or Fritzi Massary in Vienna, and in Berlin, Richard Tauber or Rosy Barsony. These pieces were written for people, they were written for performers, for very particular types of artists.

And nowadays, at the Komische Oper, I’ve brought in extraordinary people like Dagmar Manzel in Berlin, I work with Katharine Mehrling, I work with Max Hopp, and I also work with Anne Sofie von Otter [Ed: in Bernstein's Candide]; she is one of the great mezzos of our time and has a fantastic sense of humour. I like combining singing actors and opera singers and dancing actors, which is exactly what the operetta tradition did. These people weren’t opera singers; operetta was a Fach, a highly respected Fach.

So, coming back to your question, and why I’m saying this: the audiences for me have to be very diverse. I hate this idea that you do something for a type of audience. I have never understood that, I have never done it. I want as broad an audience as possible. When I was young, I hated my theatre being full of people my own age. When I started directing, I didn’t want my theatre full of 22-year-olds. I wanted my theatre to be full of all sorts of different people. Now I’m very, very spoilt in Berlin at the Komische Oper because we have one of the most diverse audiences I’ve seen anywhere in the world. There is such a mixture of students, of grandpas, of queer audience, of operetta fans, people who like musicals, and it’s every type and colour and gender and sexuality. And this, for me, is the ideal operetta audience.

It was a bit of a shock for me in Salzburg because suddenly I’m confronted with one particular sort of audience, that’s an audience that can pay 400 euros for a seat. But in Berlin in particular, I want to present firstly to this diverse audience, and secondly, you know, I don’t want the audience to sit watching an Offenbach or Paul Abraham operetta, and to be thinking that they’re watching something nostalgic, something that their grandmother listened to, or watching something that’s like a dead corpse that’s being breathed into. I don’t want that. I want them to be watching it and to be entertained and stimulated by it for what it is.

When Bogdan Roščić was appointed director of the Wiener Staatsoper, he said that opera is „die größte Materialschlacht der Kulturwelt” (“the biggest battle of material in the arts”). But when I think of your Salzburg Orphée or other elaborate productions, say, the new Csárdásfürstin at the Volksoper Wien, I get the impression that operetta even tops opera in this respect. You have the ballets, you have outrageous costumes, you have to rewrite the texts so they speak to modern audiences and so forth. Would you agree?

Bogdan has to say that because he is the designated Intendant… [Kosky smiles] so, if I were in his position, I’d probably also say that. But I have said many times, and I say this through 30 years of experience in opera, that to direct a large-scale operetta production is ten times more exhausting, complicated and demanding than directing any opera, and that includes The Ring. And to actually take the music and the text, to try and interweave the dancing elements, to try and make the piece work as a piece of entertainment but with also depth, to work out the style of the production, to get everyone to be playing in the same world (because we don’t really have a performance tradition of operetta – except maybe what I tried to develop at the Komische Oper Berlin) – this is exhausting. I am completely exhausted after I’ve done an operetta… but I enjoy doing it!

In what way is rehearsing operetta different (as compared to opera)?

I have to say that with operetta, there’s a process. When you start rehearsing, you have to find what’s funny, where you laugh, where the singers laugh. It’s very important to find comedy in a scene – for the moment. Then you have to kill the comedy by rehearsing it. There will be weeks where no-one’s laughing because you’re just trying to get the timing right. And suddenly you have to go back in front of an audience, and things have to be – hopefully – funny again! So… the operetta rehearsals, they are not serious, but in my rehearsal rooms it’s very intense because it has to do with the timing. What the audience ultimately see on the stage is something that has taken weeks and weeks and weeks and hours and hours and hours of craft and Knochenarbeit [Ed: back-breaking work]. But it’s worth it and I love doing it very much. In Salzburg, with the singers and Enrique Mazzola, we said that one of the many magic things about Offenbach is that his music starts and you smile. There’s something about Offenbach’s music that’s shamanistic, the music has some magic to it. It brings joy. And in this day and age, joy is something that is viewed by a lot of people very cynically. But I think that joy has a place in the theatre – not always and not in every production, but it has a place up there with tragedy. And that’s what I think I try to do with my operetta productions. I don’t deconstruct them to kill them, I present them to radiate a certain quality of joy.

We’ve talked about diverse audiences, colour and gender, but a lot of operettas play with racist and sexist stereotypes – where do you draw a line between being sexy and provocative in the best sense of the word and political correctness?

Well, I think it’s not just a discussion about operetta, it’s a discussion about many things. We have to understand that there are many different pieces, and some of the pieces were written at a time where there were different thoughts and different ways of looking at things and people. I think you have to be sensitive with issues; you have to sometimes play with stereotypes, ironise the stereotypes; or you have to explode the stereotypes and the clichés. [Kosky pauses] But, you know, there’s also terribly racist, sexist lines in Shakespeare! You have to work with it, but you can’t strike everything out. You have to play with issues, and there are many ways to do it, there’s not just one way of putting on a show. What I don’t like to see, for example, is a production of Das Land des Lächelns, where Viennese or German operetta people are made up to look Asian with wigs and plaits and everything. I think those days have to go.

Talk extremes: There are people who don’t want to see operettas and even some operas anymore, namely for their sexist stereotypes. They even think they shouldn’t be staged anymore. I expect we share a different opinion there…

I would hate to be in a world where people started to ban pieces and to say we can’t do them anymore. I think that there are lots of pieces we don’t need to direct, and we don’t need to see. And I think that there are pieces that are offensive – but you know… we aren’t children here. We really aren’t children. And audiences aren’t stupid. I think it’s how it’s done, how it’s interpreted, and I think it’s up to the people who do it and what they do with it. It is going to be a very bland world in the arts if we start to make rules and regulations! Art is subjective. Every single person who looks at a painting, reads a poem, listens to a piece of music, sees a dance piece… is interpreting and projecting. We all interpret and project. Some person’s erotic is some person’s ugliness. Some person can be offended whereas another person can find humour.

Let me give you an example from my Salzburg Orphée: Kathryn Lewek (as Eurydice) was not playing a stereotype – this is absolutely ridiculous. She was looking fabulous. She looked amazing, she felt amazing and she worked on the costume with my female costume designer. I said to them, “Listen, when it comes to lingerie and underwear and corsets, I’ll leave it in your hands.” And they went away and worked during the rehearsal period on what was good for her and what she felt good in, and she loved every single costume that she wore. She was never conceived, neither by me nor by Victoria Behr, my costume designer, as a symbol of anything. She was playing a fabulous showgirl! And she looked like one! I don’t want to talk about the whole discussion that followed, I just want to say that people in the audience can interpret that. A woman in the audience can sit in front of that image and say “I don’t want to see it any more.” She’s entitled to her opinion, she’s entitled to think that, she’s entitled to leave, she’s entitled to say it’s wrong – absolutely entitled (as anyone else is). But other audience members are also entitled to say, “That’s not how I felt.” In fact, it’s an empowering image. End of discussion!

Also, nowadays, after a premiere, 99% of opera companies will within 24 hours put photos and a video of excerpts of the production on social media. So, before you buy your ticket, maybe you should do a little bit of homework. Before social media, things were different of course, but now the discussion about what people expect and what they get is ridiculous. You don’t make a reservation at a restaurant when you have no idea what they have on the menu!