More than once at the Salzburg Festival last month, I was asked not whether I liked Barrie Kosky’s outrageous new production of Offenbach’s “Orphée aux Enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld), but whether I hated it.
The production is a dismaying, yet magnificent, overthrowing of the Offenbach typically presented as an innocuously charming wit who gave the world the light entertainment of operetta. So light presumably that the composer’s 200th birthday in June was all but ignored by the otherwise anniversary-obsessed classical music world.
But here we discover a biting French satirist, master of the goofy and grotesque. Kosky gives us coarse characters, expert at grossing us out. He supplies dance numbers that are camp beyond Las Vegas or Taylor Mac, and a cancan beyond belief to the degree that it becomes ineffably moving, capable of causing you to fall in love with characters of every body size and type, in every state of flamboyant dress and no dress at all, many of whom may have earlier repulsed you.
It is not easy to put a stamp on Kosky, whose production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” will open Los Angeles Opera’s season Saturday night, something the company no doubts hopes will help take attention away from its examination of the Plácido Domingo sexual harassment scandal. Different operas and musicals get different treatments. But this summer offered an opportunity to try to make sense of Kosky. He dominated the European opera scene like no one else in memory.
Along with the Salzburg “Orphée” — which, love it or hate it (or, not uncommonly, both), people could not stop talking about — Kosky unveiled a new production at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich of Handel’s “Agrippina,” which included the most outrageously affecting Nero since Peter Ustinov in “Quo Vadis.” Two years ago, Kosky became the first Jewish music director at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, and his affectionate but unsparing “Die Meistersinger,” which handles Wagnerian anti-Semitism with an amazingly deft hand, returned to the festival this summer.
In London, Kosky’s edgy, minimalist “Carmen” was Royal Opera’s big summer draw at Covent Garden. His production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” wowed the Edinburgh International Festival. It would be hard not to conclude that, despite having far too little exposure in the U.S., this Australian outsider who dubs himself “a gay, Jewish kangaroo” has become the least likely hottest opera director in the world.
Least likely because the demand for Kosky has been for all the right reasons. What Kosky does is reexamine each opera from an original perspective and then search for its humanity. He does this, unexpectedly, with the overplayed standard repertory, such as “La Bohème” and his cleverly cinematic take on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which returns to L.A. Opera in November.
He has an unerring antenna for finding hidden pockets of silliness and tenderness, of humor and pathos, in works that have been performed to death. He takes on forgotten, bittersweet operettas from the dying embers of the art form that reflected the last rays of laughter through the tears of a Germany heading toward the Third Reich.
Kosky principally does this in a unique opera workshop, the Komische Oper. It is the smallest and far-and-away least fancy of Berlin’s three major opera companies. Performances are in an inviting, decaying theater that has a long history of innovation and was a home of Brechtian theatrical conviction in the East Germany of the 1950s.
It is an informal place where T-shirts and jeans are more common than suits and ties. Kosky’s outfit is usually an Aussie-themed T-shirt or kangaroo-embroidered sweater. (At Bayreuth, where the directors are required to be dressed formally for bows onstage, he wore sneakers with his tux.) Hipsters, sophisticated cosmopolitan theatergoers and an East German audience that has been attending for decades all happily mix in lines for cheap pretzels and beer at intermission. It is the most welcoming audience I know anywhere.
Small by Berlin opera company standards is not small. Komische is a company of 450, and it really is a company. Kosky has built a stable of devoted performers with whom he can work in an environment where the gestation period for a production is long, allowing for experimentation, complexity and polish. Productions stay regularly in repertory for years but return just infrequently enough that they remain fresh. A few tour, like “Flute” and “Bohème” (which premiered at Komische last year), but Kosky also uses the Komische resources, and often its artists, to develop new productions elsewhere, as was the case with the Salzburg “Orphée,” allowing him to make a theater more finished than normally possible.
“Orphée” is a parody of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, which has intrigued opera throughout its history. The first great opera was Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” in 1607. The newest will be Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice,” which L.A. Opera will premiere in February.
Offenbach’s “Orphée,” the first operetta and the precursor of the whole genre of music theater, is, however, an unabashed parody of the dour seriousness of mythic opera. Not the greatest of all musicians, this Orpheus is a Jack Benny-capable violinist whose playing drives his wife, Eurydice, crazy. They hate each other. Each has an outside lover.
When Eurydice dies of a snake bite, Orpheus celebrates being finally free of her. But Public Opinion, which Offenbach makes a mezzo-soprano role, tells him he has to take action and talk the gods — a gaggle of goofballs — into freeing her. It gets increasingly crazy and ends with everyone doing Offenbach’s famous crazy cancan.
There has long been one way to do “Orphée.” Cute. Bring the kids.
Kosky is not cute. But bring the kids anyway to this daftly sexed-up production. They might get the anarchic absurdity of it all before you do.
To make a French operetta immediate to an Austrian audience, Kosky wanted the dialogue spoken in German and the sung parts in French. Few in his cast are German speakers, however, so he did something typically radical: German actor Max Hopp, who plays the character of John Styx, spoke all the dialogue from the stage, in different voices, which was lip-synced by the singers. Hopp, who happens to be a formidable Tevya in Kosky’s affecting “Anatevka” (the German-Yiddish Komische version of “Fiddler on the Roof”), was here a comic genius who also did all the sound effects. He mouths the squeaks of footsteps, various bodily noises and such.
Facial expressions, gestures, makeup, costumes, sounds, action — you name it — are outlandishly overdone. The dressed (and cross-dressed) wear flamboyant feathers or devilish unitards with tails, or not much of anything. The only non-weirdo is Eurydice, who throws temper tantrums in her nighties and negligees, properly enraged by her mistreatment by men and gods. This is the myth not as the Greeks or opera tell it, but from her point of view, and it’s not a pretty picture.
For some critics, the American soprano Kathryn Lewek, a Kosky regular, was not a pretty enough picture either. Having recently given birth, she was said to look inappropriate in her outfits, which in fact she had worked on with costume designer Victoria Behr. This has led to a back and forth about fat shaming in opera in the European press and the opera blogosphere.
I found Lewek to be the one normal-looking person onstage. She is a terrific actress, a wonderful comedienne and a spectacular singer. She made the production. She was a mysterious force of nature who somehow made everyone else, in the end, seem more human, no matter how much of a stretch that could be.
That “everyone else” was an arresting concoction that included Anne Sofie von Otter, a Bergmanesque prim Public Opinion; Martin Winkler, a ludicrously hopeless Jupiter; Joel Prieto, a boy-band Orpheus; and Marcel Beekman, half grotesque god, half less-grotesque drag-queen Pluto. The dancers knocked your socks off. The Vienna Philharmonic let its hair down in the pit. Enrique Mazzola conducted with the flair of someone who’s going places.
This is the kind of phenomenal show — as deep as it is hilariously shallow, brilliantly conceived and produced and performed, daringly batting down conventions and at the same time asking an audience for a sympathy it might not know it has — that conventional American opera avoids. But this could change.
L.A. Opera has thus far been Kosky’s most important U.S. advocate, having also brought his provocative double bill of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” to the Music Center. “The Magic Flute” has made the rounds, reaching New York this summer. This season, Houston Grand Opera will mount Kosky’s gripping Glyndebourne production of Handel’s “Saul.” In a phone call, Kosky said the Metropolitan Opera promised one of his European opera productions for next season. He’s not at liberty to say which one, but “Carmen” would be a good guess. Kosky also noted he’s in talks with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which Thursday announced that Mazzola, the spirited Salzburg “Orphée” conductor, will become music director in 2022. Would Lyric have the moxie to do “Orphée”? Stay tuned.
But what Kosky says he wants most of all would be to create a new production from the ground up in the States, and where he would most like to do it is L.A., a city he loves. Maybe the “Bohème” will be the ticket.
When: Six performances Sept. 14-Oct. 6
Tickets: $24-$349 (subject to change); the Sept. 28 performance will be simulcast free on big screens at Santa Monica Pier and Columbia Park in Torrance)
Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org