Interview: Belin's Komishche Oper Intendant, Barrie Kosky, on The Magic Flute
Komische Oper, Barrie Kosky and 1927 give Mozart’s opera the freshest of spins
This article is from 2015.
‘I was bored shitless when I was taken to my first Magic Flute as a boy in Australia.’ It’s hardly the kind of admission you’d expect from an opera supremo, but it’s refreshing to hear Barrie Kosky, Intendant (or artistic director) of Berlin’s Komische Oper, admit that Mozart’s most famous fairytale opera can sometimes be, well, problematic. With its strange, symbolist story, baffling birdman and birdwoman characters and enchanted musical instruments, it’s not unknown for the opera to fall awkwardly between a children’s fairytale and adult allegory.
But that’s not a reaction he’s had, thankfully, to the Komische Oper production he brings to the Edinburgh International Festival in August. It has been adored across three seasons in the German capital, as well as in Los Angeles and Minnesota, while Kosky reveals that further productions in China, Finland, Spain and elsewhere are set to continue its global takeover.
The reason, almost certainly, is that it’s like no Magic Flute that’s ever been seen before. And that’s down to the involvement of UK theatre company 1927, well-known to Fringe audiences for their acclaimed Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2007 and 2011’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. 1927 fuse animation and live action, with actors (or opera singers) performing as part of a grand projected tableaux evoking the age of silent movies or Gothic weirdness, all painstakingly drawn by company co-founder Paul Barritt. It’s a technique that works to bewitching effect in The Magic Flute with enormous bone spiders, jiving wolves, Nosferatu, Buster Keaton and butterfly boys among a never-ending production-line of gags and visual inventiveness.
‘We hadn’t done The Magic Flute at the Komische Oper for a while so I had to find a way to do it radically different,’ remembers Kosky of the show’s origins. ‘A friend told me I should go and see this British company when they were touring in Hanover, and within the first 30 seconds of their show, I thought: “aha, this could be an interesting way of approaching it”.’
1927’s co-founder Suzanne Andrade continues the story. ‘Paul and I met up with Barrie and he asked us if we’d like to work with him on Flute. We said “yes” straight away, never having listened to The Magic Flute and not even knowing anything about Mozart.’ That began a three-year development process which wasn’t without its hurdles. ‘I had ideas as soon as I started listening to the opera,’ continues Andrade. ‘But I also had to get over a few prejudices when I started with the music and I made the terrible mistake of going on YouTube to watch some other versions of the opera, with Papageno and Papagena dressed up as massive fucking birds. I ended up thinking: “what have we done?”’
Opera directors do indeed sometimes scratch their heads about what to do with Mozart’s bizarre characters, but Kosky set the 1927 duo on the right track. ‘I told them watching other productions was the worst thing they could do. I wanted them to look at The Magic Flute in a completely new way, with their own visual and theatrical language. So we sat around my kitchen table and their kitchen table and restaurant and café tables in Berlin and elsewhere, storyboarding it for a solid year. There was an awful lot of tea and red wine consumed.’
Andrade was soon won over by Mozart’s music: ‘We just listened to the music and responded as truthfully and creatively as possible, and that’s when it started to get interesting. The music really is amazing; the libretto isn’t, as it feels like it was thrown together in a few days, but the music carries it.’
An early decision was to ditch the work’s spoken dialogue (by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder) and replace it with silent-movie text plates, accompanied by insertions of Mozart piano music. ‘We wanted to strip the libretto down to its bare bones and tell the story as simply as possible,’ says Andrade, ‘and to do it in the style of silent film.’ Thus Papageno becomes a Buster Keaton character, accompanied by an animated cat (Andrade: ‘I didn’t know if I could empathise with Papageno, but I can definitely empathise with his cat!’), the spidery Queen of the Night’s slave Monostatos becomes Nosferatu, and the Three Ladies are 1920s flappers.
When the time came to put it on stage, though, there were more challenges. ‘It was very hard for some of the singers because it was very technical to start with,’ says Kosky. ‘It’s like choreography, and a lot of the time you can’t even see the animated images you’re working with.’ Andrade continues: ‘The singers sometimes thought they weren’t acting enough, but the challenge was to get them to do just a little with the animation and music doing the rest. But I think they enjoyed the different discipline of it.’
And as for how the music and animation work together, it’s easy to assume that it’s all done by click track with the musicians and singers simply following the speed of the projections. But that’s not the case. ‘We made loops of animation,’ explains Andrade. ‘The conductor could then conduct at whatever speed they want, and then we have a button-presser who’s controlling hundreds of cues per scene. We used to work with a click track, but now we always work in that responsive way.’
It’s a misunderstanding that led to undue criticism when the production was premiered in 2012. ‘A good 90% of reviews were raves but there were some German critics who absolutely hated it,’ recalls Kosky. ‘They were outraged by what they thought was just a film with the live music as a soundtrack.’ There may also have been a sense of outrage, though, that it was a show which firmly attracted opera non-aficionados; not by dumbing anything down, but by a radically fresh creative vision. ‘It’s a production where you can take kids and grandma,’ says Kosky. ‘In Berlin it’s almost like a cult production, with people coming six or seven times to see it. And I thought Berlin audiences reacted very positively to it until I went to Los Angeles, where they were absolutely screaming with laughter: we sometimes had to stop the film. And it’s also a godsend for seasoned opera audiences who are sick to death of The Magic Flute and bowled over that they can go and see a production where they’re surprised at every aria.’
Its spectacular success might just have set a new trend for 1927: their most recent (non-opera) production Golem is currently on a world tour, but they’re set to work on a new operatic double bill at the Komische Oper for 2017, as well as a new project with London’s Royal Opera House. ‘We’ve had a lot of opera offers that we’ve turned down,’ says Andrade. ‘We’re trying not to miss out on opportunities but we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking: “let’s do a 1927 on this opera”. We want to stay true to the things we want to do, and to make sure that every project moves us on.’