Barrie Kosky © Jan Windszus
Barrie Kosky
© Jan Windszus

In the first part of this interview, Kosky talked about his craft as an opera director. Now, he gives us the Intendant's view: the essence of opera and its audiences, why different houses have different problems, why he's optimistic about the future... and why he was kicked off the lawn at Glyndebourne!

You've said that one of your objectives is to make enough space for the audience to dream their own dreams. Tell us more…

I maintain a healthy optimism about the future of opera and theatre in a world of technology. There's something fundamentally human about the green space of theatre: the Ancient Greeks understood that very clearly, so did Shakespeare and Molière.

Opera, where virtually every single element of art is involved, is really very unique still. Music, text, literature, movement, dance, ballet, body, history, psychology, light, visual arts: it's the crossroads where every single street crosses into, it's the most extreme, the most real and emotionally powerfully form of performing arts. At the same time, it’s the most artificial. Through the artifice of storytelling through voice, which is about as non-real as you can get, comes the most real you can experience in emotions, because during those ten minutes that somebody is singing their death, you are most connected to death. That’s why I hate opera on film, and I hate this idea that to make opera more relevant is to actually make it more "real", because these words are meaningless.

I don't use the word "dream" lightly. Opera has to be this space where you are dreaming other people's dreams or asking people to come into this aural, visual performative dream. Without emotions, opera is dead: what draws 99% of audiences to opera is that it's a safe space where you can sit there and have an emotional frenzied experience. Unless we've had fabulous sex or had an incredibly extraordinary relationship with our partner, we're never really going to experience ecstasy like Tristan and Isolde do – but I'm happy to share their 40 minutes of it in Act 2.

My job is to enable that story to happen between the performers. Then, the audience are invited to experience that and also to project their own fantasy and their own dream onto it. Which is not to say it’s all very open: I'm very clear and very specific about what I want in a rehearsal. But I don't have to tell the audience all the time what that is, which can be frustrating for some audiences. And in an opera evening, your senses must be intoxicated. Otherwise, what's the point?

Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) in <i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i>, Komische Oper Berlin, 2017 © Monika Rittershaus
Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) in Pelléas et Mélisande, Komische Oper Berlin, 2017
© Monika Rittershaus

To enjoy opera, do people need a certain level of knowledge of the medium, a certain cultural background?

Yes and no. I like the idea that you don't have to read a single word in a programme or do any research to sit in any of my productions and go on the journey. You can come off the street and have no knowledge of whatever it is that you're going to experience, and from feedback for my productions, I know that's often the case. But you can’t deny that opera is a sophisticated structure, you can't just suddenly say "it's for everybody". Look at Tosca, for example, It's one of the most gruesome, sadomasochistic stories ever put on stage – what happens in that opera is XXX-rated, the radicalism of that piece is astonishing. But you rarely see or feel that in a performance of Tosca, because what you usually see is a watered down, easily consumed version.

No-one should be excluded from opera, and I want as many people as possible to come and experience it, through ticket prices, through open policy, through dialogue with an audience. But not everyone's going to get it: there are people who just don't like Japanese food, who don't want to eat raw fish. It doesn’t mean they’re vulgar: people shouldn't be forced to like opera.

Opera always works on two levels. It works on a very visceral emotional level: “Whoa, someone's singing at me, they're having these emotions”, that should appeal to anybody. On the other hand, opera is an incredibly sophisticated art form that’s developed over 500 years. So there's no one audience. If you want to just sit there without knowing anything about it and watch the pretty pictures with music at the centre, you are allowed to, great. If you want to do two years of research and study the programme and the libretto, great. And if you want to compare it to the 20 other productions that you've seen in the last five years, that’s great too.

But opera can't survive in the long term if the ticket prices are 300 or 400 pounds or euros, which is why it goes back to the thing about subsidies.

There are directors who have not brought their audiences with them, ENO in London being an example. Is there a secret of how to carry your audience on that journey?

People talk about the Pountney / Elder / Harewood / Jonas years, but you remember those years at the culmination, at the end of it all. They had to start somewhere, and it didn't start with a series of ten productions of chainsaws: it was a gradual process of taking the audience with them. If you're going to really try and do something different or new or expand the audience's ideas of what's possible, you have to seduce people by getting them to trust you, which means that first, you have to deliver. It’s the easiest thing in the world to design some crazy productions, to put some shocking images on stage. What's much harder is to seduce your audience in the best way which is to say "try this": they try it, they like it, then you say "come a step further". Now that can be done in different ways. Each country is unique, each city is unique: what works in Germany does not work in England. What works in America does not work in Russia.

So this idea that there's one generic way of doing opera is impossible. All those English directors, Richard [Jones], David [McVicar], Tim [Albery], they saw the East Germans, they got their juices going when they saw Kupfer, Friedrich, Berghaus, Joachim Herz; they took those ideas and worked them into a very, very English style – a brilliant English style. The problem that you always have to understand about an opera house is “What is your opera house? What is the point of it?”

I don't sit in La Scala in the same way I would sit in the audience at Oper Frankfurt, or here at the Komische Oper. At La Scala, I want to hear fabulous, big Italian voices singing fantastic Italian music and I would never in a million years expect it to be one of the most shattering theatrical experiences of my life, because apart from anything else, I know they're not going to have the rehearsal time. At La Scala, I want to hear Italian opera played by that fabulous orchestra and I want it to sound fabulous, and if I get that, I'm really happy, I've got my money's worth.

Barrie Kosky at Komische Oper © Jan Windszus
Barrie Kosky at Komische Oper
© Jan Windszus

We have an incredibly complicated system here in Berlin of three enormous opera houses in a city of three and half million – Komische is the smallest and we're 450 people – but they're all full, it's not as if anyone's struggling to get audiences. And that's for two reasons, which aren’t the same in England. Firstly, there's an ownership of the art form. So for German audiences, it's not just a night out: it's our DNA on the stage, reflecting back at us, in all sorts of different ways. I mean the Germans think they invented opera, you have to always remind them that it was actually the Italians. I think there are only two cultures in Europe, Germany and Russia, where opera is so deeply embedded in the culture, in the exploration of national identity, good and bad.

The second thing is that government funding is there to reduce ticket prices. That allows us to have 12 Euro seats, which is cheaper than the cinema, so no-one's excluded. In England, people don't get the fact that you need subsidy to achieve that.

Read what Handel and his contemporaries write about Italian opera in England in the 18th century and you realise that the English have always had a very ambiguous relationship with opera. On the one hand, they sort of love it, but on the other hand there's that British sense of like, let's not go too far with the emotions, let's not make it too extravagant. This sort of ambiguity is being played out all the time, even though English singers and directors and conductors have been extraordinary in the last few hundred years. But in England, does your audience really feel that they're owning this? Or do they feel like Australian audiences, where they're watching it because it's something exotic and sort of delicious and they love it but it's not their roots. How far do those roots really go down into the cultural DNA, how far do they really go? In Australia, they don't go down at all.

In England, there is no one answer to that. You've got people like me who imbibed opera with my mother's milk, people for whom it's a glitzy night out, people who studied arts in college. I could probably do a hundred other "user stories", and I have no idea how many there are of each...

When Daniel Kramer started [as ENO Artistic Director], I said to him “Daniel, re-invent the ensemble.” I recommended two things both to the [ENO board] members and the staff: First, you've got to bite the bullet and get rid of the all-singing-in-English thing. You can still be called English National Opera, but you need to get rid of that, because it just smells slightly provincial in the world of subtitles and people being able to research what the thing means. People may disagree with me, but I just don't want to hear Italian opera in English and I don't think most of the audience do.

Next, redefine what “English National Opera” means: be everything that Covent Garden isn't. Covent Garden is international stars and names. There are enough fantastic young singers in Britain: re-invent, get an ensemble, five well-known singers, five unknown singers, five young singers, put them on salary for two or three years. And present works that you wouldn't normally see. For example: I'm not a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, but there's enough people who are, it's as important to English culture as Offenbach is to French or Johann Strauss is to the Austrians. I pray to the theatre gods that Daniel and ENO will thrive and survive. And of course, while it's easy for me to sit here in Berlin saying what the ENO should do, it's a very hard landscape in England.

Iestyn Davies, Karin Gauvin, Anna Devin, Allan Clayton, <i>Saul</i>, Glyndebourne, 2018 © Bill Cooper
Iestyn Davies, Karin Gauvin, Anna Devin, Allan Clayton, Saul, Glyndebourne, 2018
© Bill Cooper

I love working at Glyndebourne, which is an exception because it's not Government subsidised and it's a very particular way of working. Glyndebourne is picnics, people walking around in evening dress and all that stuff, which is not my cup of tea but it is part of the experience. But the genius of Glyndebourne, what they did from the very beginning, is that the musical quality is international and impeccable, that you could be seeing the best possible musical version anywhere in the world. And it's a joy to listen to something at Glyndebourne. Firstly, that building has the most wonderful energy: that wood and that sound. Then, there’s the fact that you're given long rehearsal periods with everyone there, so for a director, it's utopia.

I didn't realise that when the performance is on, you're not allowed to walk through the gardens, even when you're directing a show. I was walking there with my flip-flops and my shorts and my t-shirt and I got told off – there was a "Can I help you, sir?" and I said, "Um, I'm staying at the house, I'm the director", and they said "Sir, you know, during the performances, you're meant to go round the other way?". So I realised, OK, can't walk through my flip-flops and my shorts, that's the rule and I’ll respect it… But Glyndebourne is great, I feel very cared for and respected, which is not what you get in a lot of opera houses around the world.

Each house has its own DNA and identity, and I think this always has to be a very important part of the success of an opera company. The Staatsoper in Berlin is a very different story from the Deutsche Oper. It's not just the East-West, it's what's built up over decades. La Monnaie always worked fantastically, because they've managed to create this sort of boutique opera house: ten productions or so a year, impeccable casting, very interesting productions, a very loyal audience. When you go to the Bolshoi, it's hilarious: over 2,000 people work there, the ensemble is over 100 singers, and this enormous thing is packed! If you're a normal Russian, you can't get a ticket to go to the Bolshoi on a Wednesday night: it's packed to the rafters.

It's easier for some houses and more difficult for others. Covent Garden will always be Covent Garden, they'll survive whatever because it's the Royal Opera House. But ENO needs to radically reinvent itself: ensemble, repertoire, and courage. The problem is that their competition is not just Covent Garden, it’s anything that's happening on the West End. Also, it happens in waves. At the moment, I don't think opera is sexy to a young audience in England, I get the feeling that it isn’t something that an audience under 30 really wants to become a part of in the way that you get in continental Europe.

Kosky in rehearsal for <i>Eugene Onegin</i>, 2016 © Jan Windzus
Kosky in rehearsal for Eugene Onegin, 2016
© Jan Windzus

But I also see some of the things that the other houses do consciously to appeal to the under-30s and younger…

Opéra Bastille has started the générale rehearsals, which are only open to people under 28, and I think it's 5 euros or 10 euros or something ridiculous. They’re, packed, you can't get a seat. But you can only do that if you're presenting work that's somehow going to speak to that audience. You can't put an audience of 2,000 28-year-olds in front of an old fusty, dusty production of Trovatore and expect them to go "BRILLIANT!" But on the other side, I'm not ageist – I don't want my audiences to be only 28 years old, I think that any age should come, and that big spectrum is what we get here.

What’s also very important is that in the last few decades, we’ve drifted into this thing whereby artists are not trusted with management, and that's dangerous. Don't get me wrong, there are brilliant managers around, but I really think an opera house is best served by a very hands-on musical director or, in the case of these German opera houses, where you can be a director and run the house: I think it makes a difference.

Let’s suppose that tomorrow morning, mysteriously, Komische Oper has gone up in smoke and you’re looking for a job. Which house would you like to be at?

I’ve been in the lucky situation in the last three years to be asked to run other fantastic houses. I said no to Munich, which was a very hard decision to make, because I adore Vladimir [Jurowski] as an artist and to run an opera house with someone like him would be fantastic. But Munich doesn't really need me and it's just too big and unwieldy for me to think about being there for ten years. If the house burnt down, I would go back to being freelance, I would do some more theatre again, make a film, take some time off.

To tell the truth, the Komische Opera is such an exception in terms of the history of the house and what you can achieve here that it's hard for me to think of where I would go next. I don't want to view the Komische Oper as a step into a bigger house.

Finally, what operas are still on your bucket list that you haven’t directed yet?

I have a list of shows, of pieces that I've known since childhood or adolescence, that I'm slowly working my way through, which is very eclectic, but the list is getting smaller because I’m being able to do them. Pelléas and Mélisande was one, so I've ticked that off the list, Boris Godunov, I'm doing in two years in Zurich, Tosca and Bohème are coming up, so is Falstaff, which is my favourite Verdi, with Rigoletto. There's a list also of operas that I like but that I'm scared by: Carmen was one and Rosenkavalier is very high on that list: I'm doing that with Vladimir in Munich in a few years.

I’d love to do Michael Tippett’s King Priam: it's a fantastic score, but there are no plans yet.

Any takers for King Priam, Intendants and artistic directors out there?