Barrie Kosky
© Jan Windszus

When you go to a Barrie Kosky production, you know you’re going to get something theatrical, something to astonish you, something brimming with ideas – whether or not you agree with them. In the first part of this two part interview, Kosky tells us how he weaves his magic: how he directs, how he rehearses, how he’s built the ensemble at Komische Oper Berlin, about his acclaimed Meistersinger at Bayreuth and the controversial Carmen at Covent Garden. We spoke in Kosky’s office at Komische, the day after a deliriously received première of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The ever-present directorial dog Samy attended the interview throughout, but declined to comment.

DK: from your side of the curtain, how did last night’s première go?

BK: It was great. I saw Candide when I was a teenager and I said “one day, I'll get to do my version”, so Candide has been percolating for a long time. But having seen lots of productions, I’ve realised that it's a minefield to bring on the stage, an imperfect masterpiece: you're never really going to get it right, so you're going to try to climb the mountain. The first important thing to me last night was that we presented once again what an ensemble can do: it's an advertisement for the great German system that allows you to have a chorus of 60 and an orchestra of 60 and an ensemble that can sing, dance and act: I'm very proud of that. Secondly, I think that a lot of people in the audience were moved by the piece, which is also a good thing, because I’m not moved by most productions of Candide. Thirdly, Nina and Jamie [Bernstein’s daughters] loved it.

Anne Sofie von Otter and ensemble: Candide, Komische Oper Berlin, 2018
© Monika Rittershaus

The ensemble quality was startlingly high last night, and I’m told this wasn’t always so before your tenure here. Is this something you’ve worked on actively?

Andreas Homoki, my predecessor, who now runs Zurich, took over the company when it was in a shambles, artistically. When I took over, I decided that I must return back to the groundbreaking spirit of Felsenstein [who founded Komische in 1947], who basically invented the modern form of Regietheater. I decided that what people should admire and be delighted by is ensemble virtuosity, which you can't really get if you don't have the same people working in the same style. I also said that at least half the productions and half the work had to be mine, that I had to put an artistic stamp on the company. So the ensemble got trained in Kosky style, which means that when they go and work with other directors, they have a whole series of skills and a language which can be used if the director wants. Now, after seven seasons, people all across the world once again go "what a fantastic ensemble".

Does your ensemble end up with a broader range of skills than its equivalents in other houses?

Yes. And that's conscious. I work with brilliant people in other houses, it's not that everything we do here is fantastic and everyone is fantastic. What I'm talking about is the physical demands that are asked of an opera singer in my house: what they can do with their bodies is as important to me as what they can do with their voice. If you want pure voice, go to a concert, if you want purity of sound, listen to a CD. I'm not interested in purity of sound: I'm interested in the entire connection between the singer's voice, the singer's body and the singer's body and voice in combination with another singer's body and voice.

You're also interested in ideas, in getting in some way to the meaning that’s inherent or can be discovered in the piece. When you approach a new work, how and when do those ideas take shape?

Barrie Kosky with bust of Felsenstein at Komische Oper
© Jan Windszus

In different ways – it depends on the piece. When I first started directing, 25 years ago, I thought you had to sit down with a designer, work out everything in a model box and present it; then, a rehearsal period was about trying to make sure that everything fitted in with your model box idea. How wrong I was! That’s taught in a lot of drama schools, but thank goodness, I realised very early on that it’s nonsense, the opposite of what actually happens. Everything happens in the rehearsal room. Everything.

I'll give you an example: I'm beginning to work on Le Coq d'or, which I will do in Aix-en-Provence in 2020. I know the music very well, I’ve always loved Rimsky’s music and the story but I’ve never seen a production. Even if I’ve listened to a piece 20 times, I have a ritual that we’ll follow: in the next two months, I will meet with my design team and we will all sit in the one room and we'll listen together to the music, right through, because the start point and the end point is always the music. Even though I talk about drama and even though I talk about text and design and performance, the starting point and ending point for inspiration and for what I want to achieve on stage is the music.

Then, we will radically and scientifically enter into a study of that music, breaking it down. People think that the first thing is "Where should it be set? Are you doing modern? Are you doing historical? Are you setting the 20s?" These are not the questions I ask – that all comes way down the road. The first questions have to be "What is this music? What's it trying to convey? What is the emotional landscape of the piece?". And then, from that, come little bits of ideas. It could be "How do we bring the golden cockerel on stage? What is the golden cockerel? The King is very unsympathetic, how do we make the audience feel for this man, even though he actually gets his eyes pecked out at the end?” What emerges after a few months or a year, is a space: all my designs are spaces, where anything can happen. I rarely get my designers to design me a space where it's very defined and clear, because I just need that space to start work. And really, once we've worked that space, which is usually a year before the rehearsals, I forget about the production, I don't do any more work on it.

Die Zauberflöte, Komische Oper Berlin, 2013
© Iko Freese /

How many of the team have been involved by this point?

Designer, costume designer, maybe lighting designer but usually not, maybe choreographer, and maybe a Dramaturg (I don't always have Dramaturgs in my productions). A lot of the time, directors will only work with the costume designer once the direction of the design is done, which I always think is fatal. So I usually work in that small team: no assistants, as small as possible.

This letting go and leaving is very important, because there begins the marination process in your head, things are sort of percolating, marinating, and bubbling. Then, after you’ve gone away, you test your own idea. Sometimes I will make radical changes just before I'm about to rehearse, thinking “that was a stupid idea, a year ago”. Day 1 of the rehearsal process is not a testing to see whether my idea was brilliant, which is a disastrous way of creating theatre, the process becomes about literally and very pragmatically saying to a group of singers “OK, so what shall we do with this scene”? I don't work out entrances, exits, interpretations, I don't talk about what the character should be, I keep my costume designs very flexible and very non-specific, because I don't want the costume to tell the audience exactly what the character is. Everything is then worked out in rehearsals, which is why I need long rehearsal times and why I need good people.

How does that play when you've got the situation of a co-production where the artists in the next house along may be quite different? We've reviewed Zauberflöte in eight different cities...

Magic Flute was an exception. Firstly, my assistant goes everywhere. Secondly, half the versions are either guest productions by us or cast by us. The Magic Flute never appears anywhere in the world without us being involved in the casting: it's part of the contractual deal with the company.

Let me give you an example of one where it’s done very right, and one where it's gone a little bit pear-shaped.

I'm doing Agrippina next year for Munich in the Festspiele with Ivor Bolton and a great cast. Suddenly, we found out that Covent Garden and Amsterdam wanted to join as co-producers, and maybe in a few years Hamburg. I now have a clause in my contract which says houses are not allowed to cast my productions without my being involved. I would prefer, of course, that the same cast goes everywhere, but that's impossible, so I have been involved with the casting for London and Amsterdam, there are some differences in the casts but there will be continuity.

The Carmen problem in London is that the casting was done before Covent Garden decided to do my production. So we now have a tricky situation, and much as I love Covent Garden, where they're in a lot of cases trying to put a square peg in a round hole. I'm very grateful to Covent Garden for taking it, but I did warn them, I said “Do you know how difficult it is to do this?”

Paula Murrihy in the title role of Carmen, Oper Frankfurt, 2016
© Monika Rittershaus

I'm going to confess that I have loved every one of your productions that I've seen apart from that Carmen in Covent Garden, which I hated...

But you need to see the Frankfurt version. Firstly, Frankfurt's smaller, which helps the house. Secondly, Constantinos Carydis, the conductor, and I worked for two years on the version, and the entire concept and production was done for Paula Murrihy, the Irish mezzo. We never even thought that it would have a life outside Paula and Frankfurt and Constantinos, and it was suddenly this enormous hit in Frankfurt, I mean enormous. Every decision that we made for the production and the show was to do with Paula. The famous shrug at the end was, with Paula, never a sense of "Who gives a f**k?", or "It's all a joke, isn't it?", never in a million years was that my intention. Firstly, that's not what the shrug is: when Paula did the shrug, it was done with such ambiguity and such a frisson about it, it was so weird and wonderful that it made sense.

It's the same thing, if Michael Volle doesn't sing my Hans Sachs in Bayreuth. He's contracted to 2021 to sing it and he loves it: that production was created for Michael. Someone else could come and do it, but they're not going to be at all or in any shape or form the person that Michael is.

I was blown away by that Meistersinger. But I’m finding it difficult to believe that the conceit that grabbed my attention from the very beginning, the characters drifting out of the piano, was thought up during rehearsal...

No, it wasn’t. You can't go into Bayreuth as you can start a production here at Komische, or Munich or Frankfurt. Firstly, the pieces are conceptually too difficult to just do everything in the rehearsal room, and secondly, you have limited time there, because there's other big Wagner pieces and the whole rehearsal schedule is a nightmare. And you have such a focus of attention, analysis of your work, you can't risk certain things. So in the case of Meistersinger, we had worked out a series of things. We knew that Wahnfried was going to merge into the Nuremberg trial room. I knew there was going to be a piano and people were going to come out of it. Where? No idea. When in the act? No idea. Who? No idea. We knew we were going to have a big head of the most anti-semitic Jew's face we could find, and I always knew it was going to be hot air, because that was the metaphor. But not where it went up, or in what part of the music (originally, it was planned to go earlier). And we never, never in a million years imagined that when you took the air out of it, that it was going to deflate and the last thing that the audience would see would be that nose and those eyes, because that's what makes it terrifying.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth, 2018
© Enrico Nawrath | Bayreuther Festspiele

So when did you find that out?

In the technical rehearsal. And I went "Oh my Jesus, how fabulous is that?" But theatre is mostly about things like that. It's mostly luck and accident. All my favourite moments in my productions were done in rehearsals. The Carmen shrug was done in Week 5. That's the thing that turns me on about opera, creating ideas and developing them in a rehearsal room. All the other stuff is second-tier stuff really.

...part 2 of the interview to follow, with Kosky’s thoughts on audiences, the opera industry and his future...