Opera moves with the times: it’s no surprise that a Carmen in tune with the #metoo movement should open in Florence, with the exasperated heroine shooting her jealous lover dead. But that’s opera as an exercise in realism, a quality some directors abhor – and none more passionately than Barrie Kosky, the flamboyant Australian whose own Carmen opens at Covent Garden on Tuesday, after a successful unveiling in Frankfurt. ‘Opera is the ritualization of emotion through the human voice, which has nothing to do with realism,’ he said a propos his crazily stylised Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Saul, in which the Biblical monarch emerged as a super-deranged King Lear.
Opera, says Mr Kosky, is the art-form which can bring us closest to the theatre of the ancient Greeks, when it’s presented with sufficient intensity and visual restraint. The stage for his Carmen will be stripped back to bare essentials: a huge staircase and just three props – a rope, a knife, some rose petals. ‘I love empty space,’ he says, ‘because with singers the stage is never empty.’ He’s also stripped out the dialogue between the arias and duets: instead, a young female narrator will tie the dramatic tableaux together.
Kosky regards Carmen as a chameleon: ‘She’s lots of different things, jealous, vindictive, an adorable little girl, with a dash of Edith Piaf. She needs to remain a mystery. What I don’t like is the portrayal of her as a sultry, brooding, Gypsy witch. She’s a snake charmer, and her music is deliciously erotic. And she wants to self-destruct, to meet her death.’ The opera, he says, is not a celebration of machismo. It’s about the irreconcilable clash between the masculine and feminine principles, ‘a tango between Eros and Thanatos’.
Brought up in Melbourne, the son of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, fast-talking Mr Kosky has traded very successfully on being what he calls a ‘gay Jewish kangaroo’, and as the intendant of Berlin’s Komische Oper he has an influential power-base. Everything he directs is in some way extreme. He outraged Baroque purists with an English National Opera production of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux whose most abiding image was of a young woman lying on a dunghill and working herself to orgasm with the aid of a disembodied hand which had risen up between her legs. He describes his production of Shostakovich’s surreal comedy The Nose – to be revived in Sydney later this month – as ‘a phantasmagoria of paranoia and eroticism’; the most abiding image there will be a tap-dancing chorus-line of giant schnozzles.
Yet there’s an acute political awareness underpinning his pranks. Vienna is in his view ‘still full of un-exorcised Nazi ghosts’. In Berlin he’s staged a version of West Side Story in which the star-cross’d lovers were a German and a Turk. With his final show at the Komische Oper in 2022 he intends to realise a long-held ambition: ‘I want to do an operetta, in Yiddish, in Berlin.’ When his contract there expires, he’s likely to stay in Germany which – with its generous state subsidies and low seat prices – is the opera world’s Utopia: ‘Going to the opera in Berlin can cost less than going to a film. That deals with the elitism charge in one fell swoop.’
In America, with its unfillable 4,000-seat houses, opera is in a ‘catastrophic’ situation, while in London ENO lurches from crisis to crisis with closure a perennial threat. How could ENO save itself? ‘You have to be really radical. Get out of the Coliseum, do the operas in their original language, re-invent the idea of an ensemble. And take things round the country in a big circus tent. Bold and radical is not just about repertoire, it’s about what you are.’ Mr Kosky was once sounded out about whether he might take over the direction of ENO, but he’s glad he didn’t bite.
And the future of the art itself? In his view only Philip Glass and Andrew Lloyd Webber have done anything new in recent times. ‘I want a brilliant jazz composer to come to me and say he wants to do an opera. The push has to come from the artists themselves.’
Published in The Economist on Feb 1st