April 2010

Arts & Letters

The possessed

By Peter Conrad
Meeting Barrie Kosky

Expressionism has never been an Australian style. How could it be, since Australians are discouraged from expressing themselves? Mouths are clamped shut to keep out blowies, with a slit at the corner prised open in case speech – preferably laconic – is necessary; miseries are borne with a stoical shrug. Ours is not a country given to primal screams or Dionysian rampages, except perhaps when we’re sitting on a couch gripping a can as we watch someone else play sport.

I wasn’t surprised, then, to hear the 43-year-old director Barrie Kosky – now expatriated to central Europe, the homeland of expressionist outcries and of operas in which the noisy, neurotic instincts are given vent – slam the door shut on his early life. “I can’t stand Melbourne,” he said when we met in Berlin in late February this year, “and I’ll never live there again. All my childhood was spent escaping into fantasy, cultivating an inner life and plotting how I’d get away. I was back there for 48 hours six weeks ago, and it was so claustrophobic!” A Gothic tremor shook him, as if he’d felt a blast from some suffocating tomb.

Kosky’s career has sent the history of his family into reverse. His father’s clan escaped to Australia from the anti-Semitic pogroms of post-1917 Russia; his mother’s people made their way after 1945 from trampled, battered Hungary and Poland. They brought an incongruously arctic business with them: they worked in the fur trade, and in a Richmond factory Barrie’s grannies and aunties – henna-haired beldames with accents thick as goulash, chunky jewels on every knuckle and a repertory of scary bedtime tales about witches and golems and perverse happenings in woods where none of the trees were eucalypts – stitched the pelts of possums, roos and foxes so that Melbourne housewives could pretend to elegance during the two or three weeks of the year that the weather was nippy. But the Australian dream of these migrants from Eastern Europe was young Barrie’s nightmare. He succinctly explains his unhappiness in his wonderful little book On Ecstasy (MUP, 96pp; $19.95), a guide to the forbidden sensations – olfactory and culinary, sexual and musical – that tantalised his imagination and made him an artist. “I hated sport,” he remembers. An aversion to football and cricket meant, of course, that he was not a proper Australian.

He soon found himself shutting out the bright, bland antipodean daylight and re-creating the culture of shredded nerves and nocturnal terror from which his grandparents had run for their lives. While at Melbourne Grammar School in the early 1980s he directed Büchner’s expressionist tragedy Woyzeck – about a tormented recruit who slits the throat of his unfaithful girlfriend – using a soundtrack from Mahler, a thunderous funeral march interrupted by the wheezing of a Jewish klezmer band, to accompany the murder. Later he moved on to Berg’s atonal operatic version of the play, Wozzeck, in which the orchestra gives voice to the pent-up anguish of the characters in a single, seismic chord, which smashes our heads like a sledgehammer.

At the age of 15 Kosky accompanied his father on a fur-buying excursion to Europe and the US. He told me he was allowed to choose the cities they visited and precociously selected Milan, Vienna and Berlin because they had good opera. On the trip he collected two expressionist icons, figures freakishly animated or turned inside out by the music that coursed through their throbbing veins. “We somehow got tickets for Herbert von Karajan’s concert with the Berlin Philharmonic on New Year’s Eve. On he hobbled, straight from the ski slopes where he’d had an accident. Part of his body was in a cast, and his back was twisted; he had this teased-up quiff of white hair, and then those arms that swept through the air as if they were made of rubber.” Kosky, who is as springy as one of the footballs he refused to kick, got up to illustrate, lurched sideways across the room like Frankenstein’s monster with arthritis, then hurled himself back into his chair, the rings on his fingers jangling with the energy he emitted. “Then in New York on the way back we saw Leonard Bernstein conduct Mahler. Or rather he danced it on the podium. He was possessed, like he had a demon, a dybbuk, inside his body. And he sprayed the concert hall with his sweat as he flailed away – a mad penguin imitating a sprinkler system!”

Music – with its crazed intensity, its determination to press emotion out of human bodies and to torment wood, metal and strings into voicing our distress and joy – had taken Kosky captive. He lived in Australia as if in exile from the overwrought, collapsing world where Mahler’s cosmic symphonies and the violently disruptive operas of Berg and Strauss were composed. The works he has directed during the last decade in Austria and Germany come mostly from this culture of romantic delirium and modernist hysteria: Wagner’s Lohengrin in Vienna, which turned the visionary Elsa into a blind woman fumbling through her personal murk and muddle with the aid of a tapping stick, and his The Flying Dutchman in Essen, which treated the nautical fable as a parable about voyeurism and predatory sexual fantasy – more Hitchcockian than Wagnerian; Weill’s Mahagonny, also in Essen, which ignored the usual satire on capitalist greed and opened Brecht’s story about the venal city out into a tale of Jewish trials in the desert; and Janá?ek’s From the House of the Dead, performed recently in Hanover, in which he cleared away the Holocaust kitsch – suitcases, piles of ownerless shoes – to concentrate on the raw agony and valiant playfulness of the internees in Dostoyevsky’s gulag.

Australia, so cheerily untragic and so studiously casual, could hardly sustain the imagination of the young man. “I used to tell my parents I was born in the wrong place. I just can’t stand those gridded streets in Melbourne: it’s a small, bad attempt to be Manhattan. And the pretension, the way people chatter about Melbourne being a world city – that’s just hilarious. And Adelaide is worse; all that Colonel Light’s utopian scheme produced is a sleepy country town. Now when I go back I feel I’m a stranger, a tourist. I can still feel those prison decades encroaching – for me, it was like having to break out of the concentration camp. And I don’t care what they think about expats betraying the country. Everyone in the arts wants to get out, and needs to. My trouble is I don’t have a base elsewhere, a village I can go back to like the Greek or Italian or Lebanese Australians I know. There’s the house in Budapest where my grandmother grew up but would never return to because her whole family was gassed by the Nazis. There’s nothing left of my other grandmother’s house in the Warsaw ghetto, and no trace of the original Koskys in Vitebsk, Belarus. I don’t have a home. Maybe that’s why I like being on trains!”

But the man without a home does have a house – an opera house to be exact: the Komische Oper, near Unter den Linden, in what used to be East Berlin. With his pierced eyebrow, his cropped skull, his hands full of rings and his aggressively urban kit-out of black windcheater and khaki pants, Kosky sat at a large empty desk in an office that will be his in 2012 when he takes over the company. The Komische Oper was founded in 1947 to divert the citizens of socialist East Berlin with operetta. But Kosky prefers to emphasise a subtler agenda. “Komische oper is the German equivalent of French opéra comique,” he said. “It’s not necessarily comic, but it’s definitely not grand opera. It means keeping a balance between music and drama, song and speech.” Under its first director, Walter Felsenstein, the Komische Oper performed in its small auditorium for audiences who were critically engaged with what they saw and heard, rather than wallowing in lush orchestral sound or feasting on the vowels of corpulent Italian vocalists.

Kosky’s own productions for the Komische Oper have helped a theatre schooled in the tendentious moralism of Brecht to adapt to the freer, more self-indulgent society of the new, undivided Germany. In Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (2003), Kosky previewed the apocalypse in a blitz of surreal images that made coprophagy, as he puts it, look “gorgeous”. In 2006, his staging of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate peeped behind the scenes at the frolics of his coke-snorting performers, who were encouraged to treat the show as the wildest of parties. The men squeezed their genitals into baby-blue female knickers or officiated as hairy-chested bridesmaids in virginal white gowns, and the women wore spangled cowboy chaps with thongs skimpily stretched between their legs; Katherine threatened the priapic Petruchio with a castrating pair of garden shears. Kosky’s head is not only an insane asylum where monsters run amok. It is also, as Kiss Me, Kate testifies, a wickedly erotic funhouse.

The mad eclecticism of this production amounted to something of a mission statement for Kosky, a definition of the artistic policy that will revivify the Komische Oper during his five-year term. “I’m the first non-German ever appointed to run this house. And who exactly am I? A Jewish–Australian hybrid, so what I do is hybridised as well, with influences I’ve absorbed from all over the place – vaudeville, the circus, the fairytales my grannies told me, movies. I just did Tristan und Isolde in Essen. It started with the lovers cramped in a tiny box, and when they sang their enormous coital duet it tilted through 360-degrees so they seemed to be floating without gravity like the astronauts on the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then Tristan died in a room that could have come from one of Francis Bacon’s paintings – a kind of black abattoir. The Germans want you to have a ‘Konzept’, but I never intellectualise what I do. The stage is where everything ought to be possible, where the imagination can run riot.”

The riot sometimes spills over into the audience, and Kosky bears the proud scars of the booings he has endured. The ugliest was in Vienna at the premiere of his Lohengrin in 2005. “The dramaturge warned me it was an anti-Semitic public, and they turned on me like a lynch mob. Well, in the program I did call Wagner an arsehole – though he was a genius too, of course. The rehearsals were so horrendous that by the time we opened I’d got to loathe the opera – it’s so patriarchal, and the mysticism in it is so phony! We had a conductor, Semyon Bychkov, whom I never want to see again, let alone work with; he brandished the score at me as if it was the Bible, with all the answers dogmatically spelled out. The tenor, Johan Botha, was a bore, and so stupid. It’s not his fault that he’s so large-bodied and thinks that the mullet is a good look, but he just wouldn’t think. Once I asked him to move a few metres because of the lighting and he spat – yes, spat – at me and said, ‘You never heard of the follow spot?’ The soprano Soile Isokoski was great, she totally got what I was doing with Elsa and didn’t mind looking middle-aged and plain or being blind. And it was fantastic working with Agnes Baltsa, who was supposed to be the sorceress Ortrud. But she rehearsed for six weeks without singing a note, then disappeared just before the opening: I guess the part was beyond her, so we had the understudy instead. After all this I had to face that screaming hatred from out front. I’d lived in Vienna for five years, but next morning I moved away without looking back. In retrospect it reminds me of Melbourne – the same narcissism, the same small-mindedness!”

Kosky, predictably, adores Berlin. “It’s an open city, it’s always been a liberal place – at least when it wasn’t being decimated and divided. It just stumbles fabulously through life, with no great urban plan. Albert Speer had a big vision for it during the Third Reich, with boulevards and gigantic monuments, and we definitely don’t want that again. It’s a collection of villages, of shtetls as we say in Yiddish.” Somehow I don’t think Carlton or Prahran would have qualified.

Determined to stay put in Berlin once he begins running the Komische Oper, Kosky has no plans to work in Australia. He last returned here with productions for the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2007 and 2008. Luckily, Kosky’s production of Verdi’s opera about blasphemy in ancient Babylon is available on DVD: a magnificently grotesque carnival, with the biblical characters wearing costumes that expose their barbarity – tigerish epaulettes for Nebuchadnezzar, a wrap-around python for his herald, diamond chokers for his army of thugs. This zany comedy doesn’t prevent Kosky from also uncovering a disturbingly contemporary story about enslavement and genocide, as hostages are rounded up and herded into a pit that gapes beneath the floor.

“It’s ten years since I last worked for Opera Australia,” scoffed Kosky. “All they care about now is bums on seats; what the tourists want is tunes, along with a chance to get a look inside that iconic building in Sydney. The stuff they put on stage is shit the like of which wouldn’t be served up in the worst provincial theatre in Europe. See how they treated Simone Young: it was like ‘We won’t entertain the thought of quality, it’s all too difficult, why don’t you just go?’ Partly it’s a problem of identity: what’s opera supposed to be saying to Australia? It doesn’t resonate there the way Wagner does here or Verdi does in Italy or Britten in England. It’s the same trouble I have with Shakespeare in Australia. I’m always wondering ‘Whose king is that?’ Put Richard III on stage in Australia, and who are we meant to be reminded of – Kerry Packer?” Kosky didn’t just laugh: mirth, vitriolic but also sad, convulsed him.

In 1903, a critic watching Mahler’s antics on the podium said he represented “Man as Expression” not “Man as Form”. The phrase suits Kosky’s On Ecstasy account of his athletic feats as he pretended to conduct Mahler records in his Melbourne bedroom – the equivalent of the sessions his better-adjusted contemporaries spent playing their air guitars. What Kosky cares about is releasing the rage, terror and desire inside him, and music is the liberating agency; form – meaning good form, the kind of smarmy politeness that people in his profession affect when discussing their colleagues – doesn’t interest him. He is admirably fearless, valuably outrageous, justifiably cocky and utterly unique. Shouldn’t someone open a Sorry Book for Australia’s alienated, unwelcome artists?

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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