After 10 years, Barrie Kosky leaves his opera house dancing
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After 10 years, Barrie Kosky leaves his opera house dancing
The director Barrie Kosky at the Royal Opera House in London, Jan. 31, 2018. To say goodbye to a transformative tenure at the Komische Oper in Berlin, Kosky staged an “All-Singing, All-Dancing Yiddish Revue.” Andrew Testa/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

BERLIN.- It is difficult to pinpoint the most outrageous moment of “Barrie Kosky’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Yiddish Revue,” which opened at the Komische Oper here on Friday. Is it the 1960s-era pilot and flight attendant in drag belting “My Way” (sorry, “Mayn Veg”) under a shower of golden confetti? The subtle camp of an imaginary Choir of Temple Beth Emmanuel singing with straight-faced sincerity? The “message from our sponsors” advertising “delectably light, always right, gefilte fish in jars”?

But maybe the evening is less about those moments than about Kosky himself: the Australian-born director who has become an essential figure of the Berlin, not to mention European, opera scene, an erstwhile foreigner who speaks in a fluid blend of German, English and Yiddish and has risen to being addressed Friday by Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture commissioner, as “lieber,” or dear, Barrie.

So much of the “Revue” embodies the ethos of the house he has built during the decade of his leadership, which comes to an end this summer. Queer, Jewish, entertaining and executed at a high level, the show is a quintessential production of the Komische Oper, the city’s most reliably interesting and revelatory opera company.

Under Kosky — a showman through and through, who operates with a young idealist’s belief in the power of theater and a brazen disregard for divisions between so-called high and low art — the Komische Oper has been the kind of place where you could see Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” one night and Mozart the next, followed by a Broadway musical, a Weimar-era operetta and, for good measure, something Baroque.

Thankfully, that spirit will survive once he leaves and the house is jointly led by Susanne Moser and Philip Bröking. And, as Kosky said during a curtain call speech Friday, the “Revue” is “kein Abschied”: no farewell. At 55, and more comfortable working as a freelancer than taking on a new house, he will remain at the Komische in an advisory role and direct one musical each of the next five seasons. His first? Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles,” given a grand treatment and sharing the calendar, in typical fashion, with Luigi Nono’s avant-garde, borderline strident “Intolleranza 1960.”

“That must be the only time in history that the words ‘Nono’ and ‘Jerry Herman’ are in the same sentence,” Kosky said. “It’s even the same orchestra and the same chorus. My God, I mean, that’s just sensational.”

Compare this atmosphere with those of the city’s two other major houses: the respectable but relatively stuffy Deutsche Oper and the Berlin State Opera, a company hopelessly wed to a core repertory heavy on Strauss and Wagner. The Komische, fittingly, attracts a varied audience that Kosky — true to my experience over the years — described as “five leather queens” next to “two tattooed lesbians” next to “grandpa and grandmother” next to “four Japanese tourists.”

Kosky’s crowning achievement may be the degree to which he has elevated and restored operetta — a genre “stopped dead in its tracks” by the Third Reich, he said, and “Aryanized” in post-World War II performance — on the Berlin stage. He has either directed or invited guests to mount productions of long-neglected works including Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy,” Oscar Straus’ “Die Perlen der Cleopatra” and Jaromir Weinberger’s “Frühlingsstürme,” which is considered the last operetta of the Weimar Republic.

“These pieces were a fundamental, important part of the landscape of Berlin culture before 1933,” he said. “And we’re not just talking about Jewish composers. We’re talking about Jewish librettists, we’re talking about Jewish choreographers, we’re talking about Jewish singers.”

It can be tricky to stage an operetta convincingly and compellingly. Kosky and his team have performed some dramaturgical surgery as part of their rescue missions. But above all, he has avoided linking his productions with history. Absent are Nazi intrusions or attempts at “setting the thing in Buchenwald, which a German director might probably do,” he said.

“You know, it doesn’t work if you’re going to batter people,” Kosky added. “I feel the audiences have been enabled in the last 10 years to sit here and enjoy it without guilt. What I’ve tried to tell the German audiences, and the Berlin audiences, is, listen: The best way you can honor these people that your grandparents or parents killed or sent into exile is enjoy it.”

So he has aimed for humor, charm and, of course, a little subversiveness. And operetta allows him to be “completely ludicrous,” as he said. “I can put in my Mel Brooks Barrie Kosky moments, and then I can be very heartbreakingly real the next moment, and it’s authentic to the pieces. I think most German directors don’t do that. They haven’t watched ‘The Muppet Show.’ I always say to people, if you want to understand my work, it’s basically a combination of the Muppets and Franz Kafka.”

For now, Kosky plans to step away from operetta and make room for others. “I’ve opened the sweets shop, and I’ve said, ‘Look, guys, look at these delicious, fabulous things. And I’ve given you the keys. Take over the shop,’” he said.

Hence his future directing musicals, which after “La Cage” will include “Chicago” and “Sweeney Todd.” He is committed to opera projects throughout Europe in the coming years, but he would gladly take on Broadway as well. That, however, would entail getting a foothold where he has been woefully underrepresented.

Productions by Kosky have traveled to Los Angeles and Houston. In September, his Komische “Fiddler on the Roof” will open at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. But aside from a co-directed, not-truly-his staging of “The Magic Flute” that appeared at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2019, his work hasn’t found the audience it deserves in New York. (The Metropolitan Opera had planned to present his “Fiery Angel” in fall 2020, but it is now in pandemic purgatory.)

First, though, Kosky needs to finish the run, through July 10, of the “Revue,” an original creation he arrived at after not wanting his final production to be something expected, like an operetta, and after the pandemic upended his plans for a Stravinsky marathon. Few directors would, or could, dream up the result: a tribute to the Yiddish entertainment common at resorts in the Catskill Mountains during the mid-20th century.

“The list of performers who were there — it’s like a who’s who of American culture, all going to this Jewish utopian, sort of summer kibbutz,” Kosky said, mentioning the likes of Joan Rivers, Danny Kaye and Brooks. “I mean, what was the Catskills if not a kibbutz without politics?”

Paced like a playlist — with the accompanying ups, downs and, at times, lulls — the show features popular music arranged and conducted by Adam Benzwi (called Adam Benski from the stage) and follies-like choreography, with an eye for physical comedy, by Otto Pichler. Company members and guest stars appear in different guises, none more surprising than Dagmar Manzel in a rendingly sober turn from her riotous Cleopatra earlier last week.

Throughout, Kosky — who also hosts the show through prerecorded introductions — is committed to the bit in a delicate balance of irony and camp. Both men and women sing in drag; borscht belt humor (“below the girdle”) abounds; and the performers assume personas on a Marvel Cinematic Universe scale. There is the “mezzo from Minsk” Sylvie Sonitzki, a boy band of orthodox Jews, and don’t forget the temple choir. In an ending out of something like Verdi’s “Falstaff,” Kosky brings out everyone, an enormous ensemble backed by an enormous orchestra, for a spectacle that, joyous and celebratory, sends off the audience with a command: “Dance!”

Kosky couldn’t have said goodbye any other way.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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