Barrie Kosky on his Brecht-Weill directorial double this autumn: a sell-out season of The Threepenny Opera at Berliner Ensemble, and the upcoming Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, capping a remarkable decade at the helm of Komische Oper.
You’ve loved Kurt Weill for a long time. In February 2020, you told us that The Three Penny Opera (Dreigroschenoper) had been on your list for 30 years, and you were going to do it, and then the pandemic came along…
Originally I was going to open Mahagonny, then do Dreigroschenoper, and the Berlin Philharmonic was going to do a whole series of the symphonies, so there was going to be a huge Kurt Weill festival in Berlin. That all exploded into nothingness and it’s all reversed.
So on Friday, August 13, we did the premiere (at Berliner Ensemble), then two, three days later I started work here for Mahagonny. I’d just come back from Edinburgh doing concerts with Katharine Mehrling of our Kurt Weill evenings, in which I play the piano. (They also performed at Dessau’s Kurt Weill Festival). So these last months have been exclusively devoted to Kurt Weill, which I couldn’t be happier with.
Can you recall your first encounter with Weill’s music?
Yes. Back when I was 15, I saw Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Metropolitan in New York and loved it. I went back to Australia, bought as many recordings as I could, discovered Teresa Stratas, who did that beautiful recording The Unknown Kurt Weill. It suited my artistic teenage temperament. Then I think I saw a concert version of Seven Deadly Sins in Australia somewhere. So he’d been floating around since my teenage years. I loved him straight away.
At seven, you started going to the opera with your Hungarian grandmother. Did she spark the flame?
The flame was sparked earlier, by my parents. One of my first memories was a puppet show, The Water-Babies, when I was three. We went to spoken word theatre and musicals together; my grandmother was in charge of opera and classical music, splitting duties with my father. From seven to 18, I was a sponge, just sucking in as much as I could possibly get without knowing what was going to come out – what eventually came out was my theatre work. My parents took me to some very inappropriate adult dance theatre productions when I was 11 or 12. That was the 1970s in Australia. It was an amazing education that I don’t think any of my European friends ever had. I saw about 200 operas before I was 18.
So 1970s Australia was the right place for such a rich musical education…
My grandmother had a subscription to concerts, which meant I’d heard all the Mahler symphonies, all of Beethoven, Sibelius, everything, before I was 18. Then all the dance pieces and musicals, also all the stuff coming to Adelaide Festival on tour – Tadeusz Kantor, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham – this incredible smorgasbord of international, amazing work that no European would ever get to see in one city. If I had been born in Germany and grown up with Jewish Eastern European parents, I would never have had that spectrum of possibilities.
It’s not just that everyone knows the songs: it’s also that Threepenny is an imperfect masterpiece.
In the end, it took you 31 years to do Threepenny. Why did it take so long?
I always thought, ‘This is an impossible piece, I love it but I don’t think I can direct it.’ We were thinking of doing it at Komische, but Berliner Ensemble have the rights, they’re the only theatre allowed to do it in Berlin. Then Oliver Reese rang up and said, ‘Listen, the Robert Wilson production is 13 years old, we need a new production, do you want to do Dreigroschenoper?’ I just said yes. What triggered it was to do it at the place where it premiered, and I like challenges.
So what were the main challenges?
It was a year of ‘How the fuck do we bring this on stage?’ It’s not just that everyone knows the songs and is waiting for them; it’s also that Threepenny is an imperfect masterpiece. For anyone who really knows the spoken texts, it’s quite difficult. Also, for example, the character of Jenny is completely underwritten. So the song texts are fantastic but the spoken dialogue, of which we cut a third out, needs help. Also, there’s the tradition of Brecht in Germany; there’s a style of how to deliver Brecht and a misunderstanding by many of what his Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) is as a technique. It’s not about alienation or not psychologically investing.
Weill said it’s an operetta, a farce with music. We did lots of improvisations, trying to find how to speak the dialogue. I kept saying to the actors, make it lighter… I got them to watch Lubitsch films, to help them move away from this heavy, ‘meaningful’ German tradition of making Brecht not entertaining. For me the Verfremdungseffekt is a sophisticated version of vaudeville technique – I can be acting a scene, quickly turn, talk to the audience, like a comic would, or give an opinion on the scene, then continue the scene, constantly drawing the audience and myself as an actor to the artificiality of what we’re doing, and simultaneously seducing you by playing a character.
You already directed Mahagonny in Essen in 2008. Why do it again?
Because I love the piece. Also, remember Weill was writing and thinking about this opera while he was writing Threepenny. They’d put that work on hold. His major concentration artistically was on this big opera, Mahagonny. Brecht wrote the script, but was completely uninterested. He hated opera! He said to Weill, ‘Here’s the text, do what you like, I don’t mind’. Only after the Nazis tried to stop it during the Leipzig premiere – and it became this success Skandal – did Brecht say, ‘Oh yes, I wrote the text.’ Mahagonny for me is one of the great operas of the 20th century, absolute top 10. It’s amazing for the musical language, the structure, and as a parable about the need for people to create these utopias that turn very quickly into dystopias. This makes it incredibly timeless.
Many people think Berlin is a pleasure city like Mahagonny – are you drawing on that?
No. No Berlin Babylon. It’s too illustrative for me, too one-sided. The city they invent is a way of behaving, they think they’re inventing utopia, where, as Jimmy says, anything goes. They can eat as much as they like, fuck as much as they like… We know in the 21st century where that’s taken us. I don’t need to show that on stage. The piece is not about the decadence of the city; it’s about human consumption, what people feel they need to enable them to get through life.
I’m far more interested in making the piece a contemporary biblical parable, so there are a lot of Old Testament images. There’s a desert, there’s sacrifice, Jimmy Mahoney is a mixture of prophet, like Ezekiel, but also scapegoat. People shouldn’t come away saying, ‘That’s Berlin’ – they should be thinking about themselves.
How do the two pieces compare?
Mahagonny is much bleaker than Dreigroschenoper. It’s a terrible ending, very cynical and pessimistic. It leaves a lump in the throat. What audiences can probably experience is how Weill and Brecht took some of the themes of Dreigroschenoper and made them even more powerful and universal in Mahagonny.
For me Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny is one of the great operas of the 20th century.
Do you feel you’re continuing the work of Brecht’s social commentary in any way?
No. You’ve got to let the audience work it out. It’s wrong for us to think we have to teach an audience anything, or to show them the ills of the world – it’s not for me to shove it down their throats. I can certainly show them what I think is something, through other people’s music or text. That’s why I think Brecht is most effective when the actor or singer just articulates those images in Brecht’s text, and the audience can think what they want. You can still play for laughs and be serious, but that’s another discussion.
You’ve helmed Komische Oper for almost a decade now. How does it feel to be leaving?
I always knew I wasn’t going to stay for longer than 10 years. After last season – which was virtually non-existent – I’m very happy we’ll be able to do a lot of the big projects that we planned this year. It’s been an amazing rollercoaster ride, and my team and the house have done amazing work in the last decade. We can all be very proud of that.
Like Brecht, would you say you’re a director in exile? What’s going to happen next?
Yeah, I’ve always been… I don’t get teary when I see the Australian flag. I love Berlin and am staying here – I’m a Schöneberg boy, was from day one – but I like being a gypsy wanderer. I’ll come back and do shows so I won’t be leaving artistically from the house, but I’m going back to being a freelance artist.
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, D: Barrie Kosky, Komische Oper, Oct 14, 17, 21, 23, 29, Nov 7, 13. Tickets still available.
The Three Penny Opera, D: Barrie Kosky, Berliner Ensemble, tickets still available for dates in November and December.
Barrie Kosky was born in 1967 in Melbourne, Australia, the grandson of Belarusian, Hungarian and Polish Jewish emigrants. He first performed in a Brecht play (Arturo Ui) aged 14, first directed at 15 and began music history and piano studies aged 18. At 29, Kosky became the youngest director of the Adelaide Festival. From 2001-2005 he was co-artistic director of the Vienna Schauspielhaus. A multi-award winner, he’s directed from Sydney to Covent Garden, and was the first Jewish director at the Bayreuth Festival. He took over as artistic director and intendant at Berlin’s Komische Oper in 2012. The 2021/22 season is his last with the house.