Culture

Theatre

Barrie Kosky’s reimagined ‘The Magic Flute’ heads for Australia

By Steve Dow
The director on why his film-inspired production almost didn’t happen

Komische Oper Berlin and 1927’s production of The Magic Flute. Picture by Iko Freese

Barrie Kosky’s “opera freak” grandmother, Magda, was “outraged”, the round-spectacled son of a Richmond furrier recalls of one of their outings together, when he was aged 12 or 13. Magda had once again taken her aspiring thespian grandson to Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, this time to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but the dialogue in this production coloured them both unimpressed.

“Give me a glass of red, Ned,” said one of the characters – possibly Papageno, a half-bird, half-man creature questing for love – in the second act. Magda disapproved that such lines delivered in a Strine-accented English could be imposed on Mozart’s 1791 singspiel – German comic opera with spoken dialogue – while young Kosky simply couldn’t understand why the music was interrupted at all: talk was fine in a musical such as A Chorus Line, but boring in opera.

During a Skype interview from Berlin, Kosky, now 51, confirms his previously expressed view that The Magic Flute, from its earliest stagings, was usually a mash-up of “end-of-the-pier meets panto meets Mozart’s profound music meets vaudeville”, yet now he is sending his own quirky film-inspired production of The Magic Flute for its Australian premiere at the Perth Festival (February 20–23) and then the Adelaide Festival (March 1–3).

The key, he decided, was to treat the whole affair as a fairytale, its subtexts – loneliness and the power of music to move mountains – secondary to the audience’s own interpretations.

The production almost didn’t happen. Soon after the Melbourne-born Kosky began as artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper in 2012, he came under pressure to deliver a production of The Magic Flute, or Die Zauberflöte in the original German. “Guys, I think it’s a graveyard for directors,” he told his board. “I just think it’s deeply problematic.” To satisfy the request, Kosky had set a short deadline in his first season for finding a fresh way to tackle the work, beyond which another director would need to be assigned the task.

Kosky’s high standards had coalesced early, when he came to realise he could direct better than act, as he told me when I first interviewed him, in 2016, in his Berlin apartment for The Saturday Paper: “I wanted to be an actor, then I wanted to be an opera singer, then I wanted to be a conductor, a concert pianist. But I never really enjoyed it: when I was doing acting at school, I always felt something was not quite right. It didn’t feel authentic. I feel no need to perform, at all.”

The premiere of Die Zauberflöte took place the year of Mozart’s death, with a libretto by actor-impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, for whom Papageno was written, despite Schikaneder’s own baritone being “distinctly on the sub-virtuoso level”, according to A History of Opera, by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker. The story also includes the collision of the dream worlds of Pamina, the abducted daughter of the Queen of the Night, and Tamino, a questing prince.

The Germans’ reverence for Die Zauberflöte goes much deeper than its evergreen global popularity, which in Mozart’s lifetime built on his growing reputation as a composer of instrumentals. Abbate and Parker suggest that the Flute’s success became “a critical force in helping turn German comic opera into the more elevated and aspiring romantische oper of the nineteenth century”. Its acceptance into the canon, despite its surface sentimentality, followed several other more serious Mozart operas, including Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790).

Kosky agrees to a point, but says the Flute was just “one strand” in creating a serious German opera tradition. “I think that [analysis] puts way too much weight on The Magic Flute,” he says.

“[But] I think it was a very important show. You’ve got to understand that at this time Italian opera was all the rage – everyone wrote in Italian, even German composers – or French. It was not de rigueur to write operas in German. It just wasn’t trendy and what the public wanted. The Magic Flute was part of a movement, which we then saw in the 19th century after Mozart’s death, of works in German.”

Kosky was inspired to tackle the Flute after attending a production of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a show created by the Margate- and London-based production company 1927, which was founded in 2005 by director, writer and performer Suzanne Andrade and illustrator Paul Barritt. Integrating film and animation into their live performances, the company takes its name from the year of the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson.

Within minutes, Kosky had decided that the company’s aesthetic, its “strange mixture” of silent film and music hall, was ripe for a Magic Flute collaboration, with elaborate visuals to accompany the awkward dialogue and Mozart’s majestic music.

Andrade and Barritt at first turned Kosky down. I ask whether this was  because they had never before created an opera production. “No, they had never been to an opera before,” emphasises Kosky. “It was fantastic. I said this was one of the reasons they had to do it.

“They went onto YouTube and saw mostly dreadful productions of The Magic Flute, and rang me up and said, ‘There is no way we’re doing this piece.’ Because they were opera novices, they thought that was the story we had to tell – man in bird costume, man with flute, all the images you see in 90 per cent of productions.

“I said, ‘No, we can throw all that out and completely reinterpret the opera in your visual language and the way we want to tell the story.’ So then they got excited.”

The world of silent film forms part of the inspiration: this Papageno, followed by his pet black cat, is suggestive of Buster Keaton; this Pamina is “perhaps a bit reminiscent” of Louise Brooks, who played Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box.

Kosky says he will step down from the Komische Oper when his contract expires in 2022, but will remain based in Berlin, working across the United Kingdom and Europe. Would he ever run an arts company in Australia? “Very unlikely,” he says, “unless the Australia Council tripled their budget. I never say never any more, but I just don’t think the structure’s there to create the work I want to create.”

In a 2016 interview, Koksy commented: “I felt I didn’t belong in Australia and would be more at home in Europe, but I still feel an outsider here. I don’t quite know where I fit. But it doesn’t worry me anymore.” I tell Kosky that when I saw this production of The Magic Flute at the Komische Oper in Berlin in 2013, I spotted him holding court with a group of visitors in the foyer. He was speaking fluent German, and appeared to be very comfortable.

“You can still feel at home and feel you don’t fit,” he says. “I’ve lived here now for over 12 years, and I must say I feel more at home in Berlin than I’ve ever felt in any other city in the world. I do love it very much. I have a lovely apartment and I have a new dog and great friends here and a fantastic opera house to run.

“I got my German passport last year, and I got German citizenship, which is fantastic because I really love living and working here, and I have a great respect for Germany and German culture, and the seriousness with which culture is received and done is very humbling. But I’m still always going to be Barrie from Melbourne who’s living in Berlin, and the Germans have embraced me wholeheartedly, which feels very nice.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Komische Oper Berlin and 1927’s production of The Magic Flute. Picture by Iko Freese

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