First published in The Herald on 26 August, 2015
Berlin’s Komische Oper is run by Barrie Kosky, maverick Australian director whose immensely loveable 2012 staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute comes to Edinburgh this week. The idea is a 1920s silent picture: speech bubbles take care of the opera’s spoken dialogue and the cast interacts with a spectacular animated film that fills the back of the stage. Kosky teamed up with the theatre company 1927 and it’s their aesthetic fingerprint that defines the look of the production — think Buster Keaton, vaudeville, steam punk, dark expressionism, Tim Burton, Nosferatu and David Lynch, all executed with gorgeous imagination and attention to detail.
But the big heart and heritage of the Komische itself is also everywhere in this show. Strictly speaking, The Magic Flute is a Singspiel — literally a ‘sing-play’, whose chunky assemblage of speech, sing-alongs and fine arias has roots going back 250 years or more on the Behrenstrasse in central Berlin. This inconspicuous street, for a spell the very fringes of East Germany, once housed the Theater in der Behrenstraße. In the 1770s its repertoire of Schiller, Goethe and Shakespeare was jazzed up to include a new German version of France’s opera comique — not necessarily funny, but popular and always tuneful. Think Broadway musicals and you’re in the right ball park.
Over the centuries, Behrenstrasse became the go-to stage for satirical revue and operetta. Composers the likes of Kálmán, Lehár, Abraham and Oscar Straus congregated. In 1892 the new Theater Unter den Linden opened its extravagantly neobaroque doors and operated as The Metropol for several boisterous decades. The playbill fell silent during the Second World War: operetta was largely written and performed by Jewish artists, and the building was destroyed altogether in 1945.
But Unter den Linden reemerged after the war under a new general director whose mission statement still defines the ethos of the place. “Cultivating the most artistically exquisite and at the same time popular works of international musical theatre from the past, present and future in a varied repertoire,” wrote Walter Felsenstein. “And in doing so, equal emphasis will be placed on both parts of the term musical theatre. For music which does not grow out of a process of performance has nothing to do with theatre, while at the same time a performance which does not identify with the music precisely, in terms of artistic validity, would be better off without music.”
Kosky’s Flute clinches all of that. When I first saw it in Berlin back in April, the production had already travelled to Los Angeles and back and tickets were still selling like mad on Behrenstrasse: this piece has caught the public imagination in a way that few opera stagings ever do. The crowd at the Komische was young, casual, cheerful. The next night Kosky presented Schoenberg’s huge and heavy Moses und Aron; the night after it was Bernstein’s West Side Story.
“The range here is the thing that keeps me fresh,” Kosky said when I spoke to him last week between rehearsals for a new Tales of Hoffmann in Berlin. “Being Intendant of the Komische is a total luxury. I can programme what I what, there is no board to tell me not to. That’s the wonderful thing about Germany — we are treated like grownups and given a grownup budget.”
One of the painfully enviable facts about Berlin is that the city has not one busy opera house but three: the Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper are both within striking distance of the Komische. “And this is the first time in Berlin history that the Intendants of all three houses regularly sit down and talk to each other,” Kosky said. “It means we can each hone in on what we do best. Among the companies we are the smallest and the most flexible. We have a diverse crowd and a proud code of audience ethics.”
He summarises that code as follows. One: long rehearsals. “A super East German model. Felsenstein once took nine months on one production of The Cunning Little Vixen! OK, I’m not advocating anything like that, but it’s great to have enough time.” Two: singers who act. “It is expected — demanded — that any singer who works with us can dance and communicate. The voice fetishist has no place here.” Three: house spirit. “Technicians, back of house, front of house, orchestra. Everyone in it together.” Kosky estimates that 60 per cent of what he programmes is done on “personal instinct alone” and the remaining 40 per cent is planned with his team.
The Magic Flute was one of those 40 per cent choices. Initially Kosky never wanted to direct the piece at all because he believed it was unstageable. “Most singers can’t speak, and when they do it’s so slow and it all sounds the same,” he said. Then he took a friend’s recommendation to see a 1927 show. “And, I mean, oh wow! Their combination of two and three dimensions, their humour, their strangeness… They come from that great English tradition of out-of-the-box performance art — I’m thinking Complicite, Steven Berkoff. I went straight backstage and asked if they wanted to do The Magic Flute with me. I told them I wanted their style, only bigger.”
The talents behind 1927 are animator Paul Barritt and writer Suzanne Andrade, who had never been to an opera before and certainly had no former knowledge of The Magic Flute. “I love that they weren’t coming at it with any baggage,” Kosky said. “They’ve still never seen a production of this opera other than their own. I love that. Nobody else would have imagined pink flying elephants during Papageno’s aria.” Now Barritt and Andrade have been inundated with requests to work with opera houses around the world, many of which don’t realise that it takes a full three years to draw and develop a 1927 production. Currently they’re putting together a new Richard Ayres opera for the Linbury Studio at London’s Covent Garden, and a downright unmissable double bill of L’enfant et les sortilèges and Petrushka for the Komische in January 2017.
Kosky emphasises the multiple dimensions at play in this Flute. It is not, he stresses, simply a cartoon that plays from beginning to end: there are 900 visual cues during the show, so in theory conductor Kristiina Poska should have the flexibility to interpret freely and respond to singers on the night. It’s a sophisticated setup but also attractively low-rent. Once made and rehearsed, it can tour without much faff. And while some video operas become obsessed by their own dazzling technology — remember Gary Hill’s intergalactic Fidelio at the 2013 International Festival? — the intricate craft of this production never dominates. “It depends on human virtuosity,” said Kosky. “Which is what should be at the heart of all theatre.”
Barrie Kosky’s The Magic Flute is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow until Sunday