Dicey Topics: Barrie Kosky talks death, sex and politics

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we're told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they're given.

This week he talks to Barrie Kosky. The Melbourne-born 52-year-old is artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin and has twice been voted international opera director of the year.

“What I think is problematic is trial by internet. We have to be very careful, because careers can be destroyed.”Credit:Anderson/Eyevine/Australscope

DEATH

There's a lot of death in opera, isn't there?

Opera, like life, is a constant tango between Thanatos and Eros – death and the erotic. The ancient Greeks got that; the Romans got that. Judaeo-Christian thought changed that. But seeing life as a tango between Thanatos and Eros is a much healthier way to live. It means you have to address death, and the very DNA of Western opera has, at its absolute foundations, death.

So what constitutes a good death on stage?

You don't have to be realistic; I think that's the mistake some people make. What makes a death moving is how the singer makes us believe his or her life is drawing to an end, and they do that with their voice. What makes opera so fabulously, outrageously disconnected with essentialism or realism is people sing their way into death.

Given all the ways to die in opera, have you decided the best way you'd like to die yourself?

Oh, I fantasise all the time about it. I always have a slight microsecond of a fantasy: "Is this my last car journey? Is this my last plane journey? Will I drown on this boat?" I have quite a phobia towards transportation.

[Laughs] Why?

I have a theory, but you'll need hours!

Have you decided what to put on your tombstone?

It'd have to be a phrase I use all the time – "Love your work!" – with an exclamation mark.

SEX

You once called yourself "a gay Jewish kangaroo".

A journalist once asked me how I'd describe myself, and I said, very flippantly, "I suppose I'm a gay Jewish kangaroo." It just came out. The fatal mistake is you say something in an interview and of course it's used all the time.

Now you have a brand.

I've felt branded!

What was it like growing up gay?

When I hear from my friends about some of the turmoil they had growing up gay, I realise I was very lucky. I was prancing around at a very early age in my mother's dresses to The Nutcracker Suite, putting on shows of opera and dance in nighties, dresses and jewellery. My entire family – parents and grandparents – made it feel completely natural. Once I got to adolescence, it was clear to me exactly what I was. At school, no one talked about it in the open, but it was very clear to everybody. And in uni, it was all very clear and wasn't really discussed or analysed.

Sounds like such a dream run. Does that mean you never had to come out?

Never. It was just assumed and accepted. Let's face it: my parents and family knew before I did.

Do you have a type when it comes to men?

I used to think I had a type. Tall, dark and handsome. Sort of Mediterranean.

You said "used to". What changed?

I realised it was just a way to prevent me from exploring other things. In the last 15 years or so, I've tried to experience as many "types" as possible. And now, like my taste in food, my taste in men has gotten much more varied.

You've expanded your repertoire.

And I don't have a type any more. For the last four years I've been in a relationship in Berlin, so I only have one type at the moment. But I've decided it's better to try the smorgasbord than the à la carte menu.

That's going to be the new quote that haunts you like "gay Jewish kangaroo".

Yes!

How have you seen the backstage conversation change since #MeToo?

It's one of the most important discussions we have. Last month, we finished a large document given to all 450 people who work in the Komische Oper, which gives definitions of sexual misconduct in the rehearsal room and theatre, and how someone goes about a complaint. People are very confused about what is and is not allowed. It's tricky, because you're in an environment where people are touching, feeling, using fantasy and their own personalities to create something. But most people I've worked with will ask the person in front of them, "Can I touch you there? Is it okay if we move like that?" If there's anything illegal, or that makes anyone uncomfortable, we must take these issues very seriously. What I think is problematic is trial by internet. We have to be very careful, because careers can be destroyed.

POLITICS

You're living in the Eurozone. Is it fair to say you're not short of political inspiration for your work?

One of the major reasons I took German citizenship last year – I now have dual Australian-German citizenship – was to be able to vote. I've lived in Europe for 18 years, Germany for 12, and haven't been able to vote. Not being able to vote is quite problematic, particularly in these times when voting does matter. You have to be politically aware. You can't ignore it.

What would your signature political policy be?

Respect for other people. And teaching ourselves to get on with people we don't necessarily like.

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Barrie Kosky will direct The Magic Flute at the Perth Festival (February 20-23) and the Adelaide Festival (March 1-3).

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