INTERVIEW WITH BARRIE KOSKY
How subversive is a can-can?
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) is considered the first real opera in history, while Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (1858) is thought of as the original operetta. Is it pure coincidence that these two works are dedicated to the same mythological figure: Orpheus?
It couldn’t get better. Monteverdi set out to reinvent Greek theatre using the seminal Greek myth about music! And Offenbach started the entire operetta tradition by using the same myth. Now, he didn’t do it because Monteverdi did it, at least not consciously. It’s an extraordinary thing that Monteverdi, who initiated the entire history of opera, and Offenbach, both used the same myth.
Barrie Kosky © Jan Windszus
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INTERVIEW WITH BARRIE KOSKY
How subversive is a can-can?
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) is considered the first real opera in history, while
Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (1858) is thought of as the original operetta. Is it pure
coincidence that these two works are dedicated to the same mythological figure:
It couldn’t get better. Monteverdi set out to reinvent Greek theatre using the seminal Greek
myth about music! And Offenbach started the entire operetta tradition by using the same myth.
Now, he didn’t do it because Monteverdi did it, at least not consciously. It’s an extraordinary
thing that Monteverdi, who initiated the entire history of opera, and Offenbach, both used the
Orphée aux enfers is your third Offenbach production. Do you have a special
connection to this composer? What is it about this operetta in particular that attracts
Offenbach crosses so many interesting
cultural pathways. He was the son of a klezmer
musician who was a cantor in a synagogue.
I’ve always said that in Offenbach’s music, like
Kurt Weill’s – because Weill’s father was also a cantor – you hear the melodies of the synagogue in all of their music. You listen to
your father all your life and you end up putting that music into sexy operettas. I’m not necessarily saying that it’s Jewish
music. All I’m saying is we know that
Offenbach sang in a synagogue choir in Paris
when he was a student at the Conservatoire.
His Judaism unconsciously, naturally,
organically went into his music.
Of course, you can talk about Offenbach’s
connection with Mozart, but I think you also
must always talk about the idea of Jewish
melody. I always point out that his subversiveness comes from his Jewishness and also
from his Germanness. He was a German Jew
in Paris and I find that very interesting. It’s
connected to Heinrich Heine. They both had a
wonderful sense of humour and were very
much part of that French-German discussion and that Jewish-German discussion.
And what could be more subversive that what he does with Orpheus? In the original version
of the myth, Orpheus’s singing allows him to go into the underworld. But in Offenbach,
everyone’s complaining about Orpheus and his music. You’ve got that duet where Eurydice is
begging him not to play the violin because it’s so awful.
While other composers can make the stones weep or the wind stop with their music,
Offenbach’s genius is that he puts a smile on your face, even in the most stoic, misanthropic
person. You just can’t help smiling.
The premiere of Orphée aux enfers in Paris was a scandal. What remains of this
This is a radical piece and I think there are two things you can pick up from Offenbach’s time
and bring into our own. Firstly, you have the outrageousness of satirizing music itself. He starts
out with the quintessential myth of music, but everything that is held sacred about that myth,
including the loss of his wife in the underworld, is mocked. Not only do we not get the sacred
marriage between Orpheus and Eurydice and the idea of his sacred music, but also she can’t
stand him! She can’t stand his music! She loathes him!
So Offenbach turns the whole idea of the power of music in the Orphic myth on its head, plays
with it but then celebrates it. And where better to do this than in Salzburg, where you can play
with the idea of holy music. Orphée aux enfers is not Parsifal!
And the second thing he subverts is the whole idea of heteronormative marriage. What does
marriage mean? And you see this in Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as in Jupiter and Juno.
The genius of Greek and Roman mythology is that they made marriage so dysfunctional.
‘Orpheus, you have the soul of a common fiddler!’
-‘Wife, your verdict is very harsh.’
Unlike in most arrangements of the Orpheus material, Offenbach’s Eurydice is not the
faceless wife, but has a distinct opinion of her own. Is she actually the protagonist of
This presentation of these amazing strong women really interests me. It became even more
developed with Hélène and the Grand Duchess of Gérolstein. These female characters are
decades ahead of anything any composer was doing on the opera stages. We must remember
that we don’t see these women in 19th-century French, Italian, German or Russian opera.
In everyone else’s version, she dies and Orpheus journeys to the underworld – a horrible place
– attempts to bring her back and loses her a second time: that famous turn of the head. And
he goes back up to earth, is ripped apart by the furies and his body goes down the river and
becomes music. Wonderful, powerful, mythic material.
Not in Offenbach. Here, Jupiter makes him turn around because Jupiter and Pluto want
Eurydice to remain in the underworld. But she says, I don’t want either of you and don’t make
me go back to that Orpheus! And she jumps into the arms of Bacchus.
In the end she wants her freedom and her independence. Where in serious operas of the time
do you get a female character choosing independence of marriage and male tyranny?
Can you tell us anything about your production, the set design and the costumes? What
kind of world are you taking us to?
I can’t tell you details, because they get worked out during rehearsals. But it’s always the case
with Offenbach that we need to realize we don’t live in his time. We can’t replicate the
extraordinariness of what it must have been like to sit in these gas-lit theatres with these halfnaked dancers and this outrageous political satire where the very audience he was satirizing
was sitting there, laughing at themselves.
It was a mixture of political satire, porn and varieté. So we can’t even begin to imagine what it
was actually like. All we know is it was very hot in those tiny theatres, which must have been
part of the experience: sweaty and dirt
So if we now say that Offenbach is just a satire of the bourgeoisie and do it like that, it doesn’t
work, because what are we doing then? Would it mean making the Salzburg audience laugh
at itself? Well, that joke would wear thin within minutes. I’m not doing a hard-hitting social
critique. If I wanted to do that, I would do Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. If I want to
make a comment about society, that’s not Orphée aux enfers.
In my production, I’m taking you to a surreal fantasy world that has elements of different time
periods. We are not doing a 19th-century reconstruction and we are not doing a contemporary
production. We are mixing – the world is a hallucination of elements of Offenbach’s world seen
through the eyes of the 21st century. Like all operetta, it must have opulence. It’s a Kosky
production, so we’re using silent film techniques and gender-bending and varieté. It’s an
Offenbach Panopticon. I’ll give you one more hint. We have Swarovski sponsoring part of the
Speaking of the can-can: detail from the Salzburg Festival costume department
Speaking of the can-can, anyone who thinks of Orphée and Offenbach will inevitably
have that tune in their head. There is hardly a more famous operetta melody. Everybody
expects a big explosion on stage? How do you deal with it? Will there be an explosion?
You know, when you see many productions of Orphée aux enfers, they don’t even do the cancan. But you must do it, because all the Dionysian energy in Orphée aux enfers is encapsulated
in that dance. But what is the can-can? How you do the can-can? How subversive is the cancan? These are all very important questions. There are so many interesting levels you can you
work on this piece and play with it.
The can-can is an incredible dance thing started by men and eventually taken over by women,
initially in the dance halls and the varietés of Paris, without underwear. Then they put
underwear on the dancers, but it had a slit. It was a bit like belly dancing with your crotch.
There are two versions of this operetta. Which will we see in Salzburg? And how do you
deal with the spoken dialogue?
We’re singing it in French and speaking in German. There was a discussion about whether we
should do it all in German, because there’s a tradition, going back at least to Max Reinhardt
when he did all his famous Offenbach productions, in German.
When we did Barbe-bleue and La Belle Hélène in Berlin, we did them in German. In Salzburg,
there’s a mix, but it’s a mix that works because Offenbach was German-French. And I think
that this mixing of French and German is authentic to Offenbach’s DNA.
And we’ll be adapting the dialogue, because we’re turning the role of John Styx into Death
itself. In Offenbach there is a dance between Eros and Thanatos, a tango between death and
the erotic. It was my idea that the piece should be narrated by death. So Max Hopp (as Styx)
has a larger role than he would otherwise.
The conductor is Enrique Mazzola, with whom you have already worked a lot. What do
you appreciate about him and this collaboration?
The Vienna Philharmonic is going to play. There is need for a conductor who can give speed
and wit. Markus Hinterhäuser and I came up with Enrique Mazzola because of his experience
with Rossini and Donizetti and because his Meyerbeer at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was
Have you already worked with some of the singers in the Salzburg cast?
I was very involved in the casting process, which isn’t usual for a festival like this. And I had to
have clowns. Offenbach only works when you have clowns as performers. I can’t teach
someone to be funny and I can’t teach someone to be able to how to do this style. And I know
that the performers we’ve found will be able to do it. We have two fabulous young singers as
Orpheus and Eurydice. Joel Prieto has sung Tamino in my production of Die Zauberflöte in
Madrid. He’s great and he can sing, dance and act. We have Kathryn Lewek, who was a
sensational Konstanze at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and I think is the best Queen of the Night
in the world.
And it was important to have as Pluto and Jupiter two performers who could be “schräg” and
eccentric and sing the roles well. One of them is Martin Winkler (Jupiter), who is one of the
most extraordinary people I’ve ever worked with. As Pluto, we’ve got Marcel Beekman, who’s
a Dutch singer and a brilliant performer.
With this production, you are making your debut at the Salzburg Festival. What does it
mean to you to stage this work in the Haus für Mozart?
I think it’s great that on Offenbach’s 200th birthday, the Salzburg Festival is honouring the
composer by putting his work alongside Mozart. He was, of course, called the “Mozart of the
Champs-Élysées”. And he adored Mozart. So to perform Orphée aux enfers in the Haus für
Mozart is the best birthday present and memorial that you can give Offenbach. I think he’d be
grinning in his grave.
Offenbach is a revolutionary composer and a genius who sits in the pantheon, not only
because of what he did in his own time but because of the influence that he had and the radical,
revolutionary things he did on his stage. He was a theatre man from head to toe.
Barrie Kosky © Jan Windszus
Joel Prieto (Orphée) © Simon Pauly
Kathryn Lewek (Eurydice) © Uzan International Artists
Detail from the Salzburg Festival costume department © Anne Zeuner
Jacques Offenbach (1819 - 1880)
Orphée aux enfers
Opéra-bouffon in two acts and four scenes (1858)
Libretto by Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy
Wed 14 August - Fri 30 August
6 performances, Haus für Mozart
Conductor Enrique Mazzola
Director Barrie Kosky
Sets Rufus Didwiszus
Costumes Victoria Behr
Lighting Franck Evin
Choreography Otto Pichler
Dramaturgy Susanna Goldberg
Aristée / Pluton Marcel Beekman
Jupiter Martin Winkler
Orphée Joel Prieto
Eurydice Kathryn Lewek
John Styx Max Hopp
L’Opinion publique Anne Sofie von Otter
Mercure Peter Renz
Mars Rafał Pawnuk
Diane Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Junon Frances Pappas
Vénus Lea Desandre
Cupidon Nadine Weissmann
David Cavelius Chorus Master
Coproduction with Komische Oper Berlin
and Deutsche Oper am Rhein
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