Barrie Kosky prepares musical feast for Berliners

Barrie Kosky prepares musical feast for Berliners
Kosky's production of Wagner in Vienna in 2005. Photo:DPA

Barrie Kosky, the enfant terrible of Australia’s theatre scene, talks with David Wroe about his production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate opening at Berlin’s Komische Oper on Saturday night.


Cole Porter's Broadway smash Kiss Me Kate begins with the song, “Another opening, another show,” in which the singers fret about how getting the opening night to go smoothly is like pulling a rabbit from a hat.

But maverick producer Barrie Kosky, whose own Kiss Me Kate, starring the great stage actress Dagmar Manzel, opens Saturday night at Berlin's Komische Oper, is feeling comparatively sanguine.

The rehearsals, with a cast of more than 100 singers, actors and dancers, have gone “fantastically” and Kosky, while admitting to nerves, is familiar enough with Berlin audiences to sense they're going to love it.

Of course, the cast won't be singing ''Another opening, another show'' but, ''Den ersten Arbend, die neue Schau.'' For only the second time, Kiss Me Kate has been translated into German.

Kosky is an Australian who was labelled theatre's enfant terrible in his home country for his frequent tirades against its arts scene, which he has branded myopic, parochial and cliquey.

He feels at home in Berlin and says he has never been more comfortable in a city. As such, he is well suited to the task of bringing Porter´s classic musical to the ears of Berliners.

“There is absolutely no way you can translate Cole Porter's lyrics into German. The rhyming, the scanning of the words, the ebullient wordplay he has with syllables and poetic devices that are so spectacular - you just can't do it,” Kosky says.

“So we tried to create something that was as close to the spirit of Cole Porter as possible ... The jokes work in German, but they work in different ways.”

Though not usually fan of musicals, Kosky puts Porter among the greatest composers – as good as the 19th century German and Austrian masters Schumann and Schubert.

Kiss Me Kate, which Porter wrote in 1948 and which ran for 1,077 performances on Broadway, is a backstage comedy set amid a shambolic production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The egotistical director Frank Graham and the diva star Lilli Vanessi (played by Manzel) used to be married. Following a Shakespeare-style string of errors and misunderstandings, they have a blazing fight in the middle of the opening night but, when the dust settles, realise they still love each other madly.

“The first thing that attracts me is that the music is spectacularly good,” Kosky says. It's just one great song after another. There are very few musicals where you can say that virtually every song is not only humable but a hit.”

That Kosky is a natural iconoclast should be an asset. His irreverence towards more serious German works has got him into trouble in the past, notably in Vienna, where he co-directed the Vienna State Opera from 2001 to 2005.

He was famously booed for his production of Wagner's Lohengrin by audiences who felt a jealous guardianship of the material and were incensed that Kosky was trashing tradition by, for example, having the King Heinrich in a three-piece, tan suit.

He expects no such preciousness from his Berlin audiences who, he says, have a considerably better sense of humour. “They're great. Vienna audiences – at least opera audiences – are dreadful. Very arrogant, very conservative and very ignorant.

“But Berlin is super. This is my fifth opera in Berlin and the audiences have been fantastic. I've found them to be very aware. And Berlin audiences do have a sense of humour,” he says. “I've seen that in my other productions. With Marriage of Figaro they laughed and saw my humour and that's the same humour that's in Kiss Me Kate, so hopefully they'll find it funny.”

Asked about the German sense of humour, Kosky lapses abruptly into his trademark, perilous forthrightness.

“Ever country has humour, but I wouldn't say comedy was a strong point to German culture. I just wouldn't. I pretty much think the cliche is true,” he says. “German culture has given us many things in terms of literature, music, philosophy, science, architecture - many wonderful and fantastic things. But I would say internationally renowned comedy is not one of them.”

So how would he characterise their sense of humour?

“Like their food.”

Heavy and stodgy?

“Not what you want to eat very often. I know that's terrible, but it's true. I'm being very general here and I'm probably being outrageously incorrect ... but what they don't do well is a kind of ironic comedy,” he says.

“This fantastic thing of irony, slapstick and the absurd…these things seem to be virtually non-existent in the mainstream German comedic circles.”

Accordingly, Kosky has no idea how audiences will react to his production of Kiss Me Kate: “They may sit there in stony cold silence and I could be the only one who finds it funny.”

Then again, Kosky insists that Wagner's Ring Cycle is funny and is determined, when he produces it in Hannover a couple of years from now, to get ''a few laughs in there'', even if German Wagner fans don't see the joke.

Kiss Me Kate opens Saturday night at 7 pm and runs until July 26 at Berlin's Komische Oper, 55-57 Behrenstrasse, Mitte.


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