Looking out at Covent Garden Piazza from the Royal Opera House, it’s easy to forget that this site, teeming with tourists, was once home to London’s most famous fruit and vegetable market. By marvellous coincidence, the opera director Barrie Kosky’s grandfather from the East End used to have a stall there. Now Kosky, 49, is inside the Royal Opera House’s rehearsal studios for the first time, staging his ROH debut production: Shostakovich's youthful masterpiece The Nose.
The Australian opera director, recently named Director of the Year by the International Opera Awards, has come a long way, and not only geographically. Having termed himself a “gay, Jewish kangaroo”, he is bounding through the world’s great lyric theatres, his fresh and original productions trailing accolades galore.
His staging of Handel’s oratorio Saul for Glyndebourne in 2015 won a Royal Philharmonic Award and was nominated for a South Bank Show Award; Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he directed in historic-cartoon style, has been snapped up by opera houses and festivals around the globe. Next summer he heads for Bayreuth to tackle that ultimate paean to German art, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
If his maternal grandfather in Covent Garden would be happy to see him ensconced in the Royal Opera House, so would his paternal grandmother, who came from Hungary; it was she who introduced him to opera as a child. “I was bombarded in a wonderful way from the age of seven onwards,” he says, “and by the time I left school I’d seen around 200 operas, not only the popular ones.” When he was 15 a teacher encouraged him to try directing a play at his school; browsing for one in the library he chose no smaller challenge than Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck.
His family was a melting pot of different Jewish traditions. “My paternal grandfather and his siblings left their shtetl just outside Vitebsk, in what’s now Belarus, after a terrible pogrom around 1903,” he says. “They came to London, via Hamburg, but weren’t allowed to stay in Britain and had to go to Canada or Australia. They chose Australia, where they started a fur business.” This grew eventually to be the country’s largest fur retailer. On a business trip to central Europe his grandfather met his grandmother, “who was from a typical, assimilated, upper middle-class Budapest Jewish family.” On his mother’s side, his English-born grandparents had family members who were involved with the Yiddish Theatre in the East End; Kosky’s father, sent to Britain on business as a young man, married their daughter and took her home to Australia.
Kosky, having come to terms with the “cities of my grandmothers”, Vienna and Budapest, has settled in Berlin, “which I love”. Yet he also remarks, “I felt I didn’t belong in Australia and would be more at home in Europe, but I still feel an outsider here. I don’t quite know where I fit. But,” he adds, “it doesn’t worry me any more!” Jewish history and culture remain a fervent passion for him, although he describes himself as a “spiritual atheist” who dislikes organised religion.
His fascination with the inter-influence of Yiddish literature and culture, Russian avant-garde theatre and German Expressionism is feeding his work on Shostakovich’s The Nose. The choice of piece is unusual, deliberately so: “I wanted to do an opera that had not been staged here before,” he says. “It’s difficult to make your debut here, and in Mozart, Verdi and Wagner there’s too much tradition, history and opinion! I’ve wanted to do The Nose ever since I first heard the score while I was at university, but you rarely get to see a production because it’s huge and expensive to put on.”
It is based on a surreal short story by Gogol: a man awakens to find that his nose has gone missing and is at large in St Petersburg, living a life of its own. “Gogol combines Russian folklore, superstition, the grotesque, dreams, symbolism, humour and this incredible fantasy,” says Kosky. “I also feel there’s a connection in it with my favourite Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, who I think were heavily influenced by Gogol.
“I find the story so weird and wonderful. It has almost the logic of a dream; you never quite know what’s happening, and he never explains. But I think it’s dangerous to say that The Nose is a metaphor for this or that. I think it is a delicious piece of nonsense, much more connected with Dada and Surrealism, and with the logic of dreams, like Alice in Wonderland. It’s part parable, part Kafka, part Marx Brothers.
“We wanted to create this weird and wonderful world of St Petersburg without being literal and without saying what the nose is or represents. That’s for the audience to decide, as in any great fairy story or myth. I think a director’s work has to leave room for those associations and interpretations from the public. That’s not to say that I don’t have a strong interpretation, but I hope that the production allows another set of them to take place.”
It sounds almost as much fun as his Magic Flute production, created originally for the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he became intendant and chief director in 2012. Since he took over, the theatre’s audience figures have shot up — in his first two years they jumped by some 20 per cent — and, intriguingly, he has now ditched the company’s policy of performing in the vernacular translation, favouring the original language whenever possible.
“There was a time for translated opera, but with surtitles that has passed. It can sound provincial,” he declares. “Nobody wants to hear Italian opera in anything but Italian — and it sounds even worse in English than it does in German, which is pretty bad!” Wasn’t there an outcry? “Not one letter of complaint — but much celebration,” he says proudly, adding that English National Opera could profitably consider following suit.
He is meanwhile preparing his first staging for the Wagner Festival in the composer’s own theatre at Bayreuth. Wagner’s famous anti-Semitism still makes the operas a difficult prospect for many Jewish music-lovers and Kosky admits he is no exception. He recounts that Katharina Wagner, the festival’s current director and Wagner’s great-granddaughter, persuaded him to stage Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which he had previously refused to approach.
“Meistersinger is a piece of German ideology and German music about German ideas about music, community and nationhood and culture, written by someone who was obsessed with ideas about what being German meant. It’s the only one of his operas that is not a universal story,” he says.
“I told Katharina I didn’t think I’d have much to say about it, being an Australian Jew. She said she thought I’d have a great deal to say about it, being an Australian Jew!”
As what he terms a “cleansing” exercise after the Wagner, he plans to tackle Debussy’s Pélléas et Mélisande and, by way of extreme contrast, Fiddler on the Roof back at the Komische Oper.
“Fiddler on the Roof is the Jewish Meistersinger,” he declares. “I think there’s a very interesting link between Tevye and Wagner’s Hans Sachs and I’m making a point of it. Though I’m probably the first director in the history of opera to say
‘Tevye’ and ‘Hans Sachs’ in the same sentence…”
The Nose, Royal Opera House, from 20 October. Booking: 020 7304 4000