Barrie Kosky prepares musical feast for Berliners

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.

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

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.


German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

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Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page