As an Australian living in Vienna, Barrie Kosky is used to upsetting people. As he prepares to depart his tenure as director of Vienna Schauspielhouse, the Edinburgh International Festival revival of his audacious treatment of Monteverdi’s opera of sex and politics, The Coronation of Poppea, makes obvious the qualities that get some peoples backs up. Kosky’s version, sharpened simply to Poppea, promises to shake up the protectors of the classical canon as much as most else of Jonathan Mills’ inaugural programme.
“We should be quite clear about this,” Kosky motor-mouths down the line in a manner that has made him one of the most dynamic enfant terribles of the opera world. “It’s not an interpretation of it. It’s a version of it which came out of a particular set of circumstances.”
Those circumstances included the introduction of songs by no less a figure than Cole Porter, at first glance an unlikely bedfellow for one of the founders of opera as we know it. Kosky begs to differ.
“If you listen to a song by Cole Porter and George Gershwin”, he says, “they’re just as good as anything by Schubert. It’s a continuum of European song which they’re all part of, though I was amazed by how smoothly everything fitted together. There is a link between the two. Both had the ability to move from happiness to melancholy in the same line.”
Continuing his adulation of Porter, Kosky is about to direct a production of the Porter composed musical, Kiss Me Kate, which, like Poppea, will be performed in German.
“It needed the dust blown off it,” Kosky explains, “so we’re using a new translation. For Poppea as well, doing it in German gives a flavour that can end up lost if you do it in English.”
Poppea isn’t the only reinvention of Monteverdi in the EIF programme. Pasty-faced junkyard balladeers and veterans of Shockheaded Peter, The Tiger Lillies, serve up an equally scurrilous take on the man in their self-explanatory A Tribute (of Sorts) To Monteverdi. Kosky, as you might expect, is a fan, and appreciates how a trio might tackle such material.
“I don’t know why any opera writer today would write for a large orchestra” he says. “It was the fashion in the 19th century, but today I’m more interested in how composers work with small ensembles.”
With only seven actors and four musicians on board for Poppea, both Kosky’s comments and an approach some might see as sacrilege clearly look set to lob a hand-grenade into the closed fortresses occupied by the self-appointed guardians of the canon. Never shy of courting controversy, Kosky is unfazed at the prospect.
“We’ve had the full gamut of people telling us we’re destroying Monteverdi,” he says. “I’m very happy for people to have opinions about it, though I might not necessarily agree with a lot of it, but we’re making people look at the idea of the Baroque in a new way. For those who do know the opera, it’s quite a shocking experience, and the keepers of the Baroque museum will be angry, but no-one actually knows how it originally sounded. They’re obsessed with the idea that there should only be one way of interpreting things. The twentieth century saw the start of a period of obsession with authenticity, and I think Monteverdi and other composers have been victims of that trend.”
Poppea, then, should be judged on the terms it sets down for itself. While
Kosky makes no apologies for what might be seen as an extreme approach, he doesn’t go looking for fights either.
I don’t sit down with my collaborators and think how we can piss people off,” he insists. “It’s about what I feel is right for something in terms of cross-fertilisation, be that video, jazz, rock or whatever. But it’s not all successful. I don’t believe in the new just for the sake of it. But what I do believe very strongly is that theatre isn’t theory. It’s something made by a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time. Anything else is probably going to be a waste of time. ”
Poppea, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 11-13
The Herald, August 2007