From the world’s most in-demand opera director, the Royal Opera’s new Carmen ditches sultry stereotypes in favour of music hall spectacle. He tells George Hall why the work truly belongs in the French comic opera tradition
Georges Bizet’s Carmen is currently the third most popular opera in the world. According to Operabase, which provides the most comprehensive statistics on such things, the number of Carmen’s annual performances is exceeded only by La Boheme and The Magic Flute.
For any opera company, therefore, a new Carmen is a big deal, and especially for one as prominent as the Royal Opera, which has entrusted its latest version – replacing Francesca Zambello’s 12-year-old traditional staging – to Barrie Kosky.
The production has a very particular structure, according to the director, who is using the metaphor of the revue. “Carmen is presenting her life to the audience, so we don’t have any realism on the stage,” he says.
“There are no walls, no doors, no furniture, and no attempt either to portray a hot summer’s day in Seville or to do poverty, which is always problematic. We do something else. Carmen is like Don Giovanni or La Boheme. These pieces are good enough to withstand all sorts of different approaches.”
No director is in greater demand at the moment than the 51-year-old Australian. Since 2012, he has been artistic director and intendant of the Komische Opera in Berlin – an opera house whose theatrical values have always been considered exceptional – and he won best director at the 2014 International Opera Awards.
With British companies, he has staged Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Castor and Pollux at English National Opera in 2011 and George Frideric Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne in 2015.
One of his most memorable productions in this country came the following year with Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose  for the Royal Opera, its entire chorus-line of dancing noses a spectacle never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
Kosky seems gifted with the ability to strike a balance between maintaining an intellectual thread throughout a piece while presenting it in the most eye-catching visual terms. Opera fans keenly await what he will do with Bizet’s masterpiece.
The central character has been adapted to so many diverse cultural forms, and the tunes are so familiar that Carmen can mean many things to many people. Who is she for Kosky?
“I don’t believe that you can say Carmen is this or that,” he says. “It’s nuanced according to what each performer brings to it. I think she’s a chameleon.”
He continues: “It’s important that you see a spectrum. I don’t like a sultry mezzo coming on and staying sultry for three hours. I don’t like a cold, cruel manipulator, and I don’t like the hands-on-the-hips, ‘look at my bosom’ approach. I always say to a singer singing Carmen, don’t worry about all the pieces of the jigsaw: play that piece in that scene, and it will all work together.”
Kosky does not subscribe to Carmen as victim. “As well as the darkness, I tend to try to give her an ironic sense of humour, which leads me to the most important thing in our attitude towards Carmen: it’s not a Spanish opera, it’s a French opera from the first.”
As it is set in Spain, people mistakenly think Carmen must therefore possess a “sweaty, southern Mediterranean, Latin, Lorca feel,” the director says. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
This colours his whole approach. “I believe that Carmen is essentially opera comique, or even operetta, until Act III, when there’s a huge shift in the music and it becomes one of the earliest forms of verismo,” he says. Verismo is the no-emotional-holds-barred school of Italian realism associated with Giacomo Puccini and his contemporaries Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo.
Q&A: Barrie Kosky
What was your first job? Playing Paddington Bear, aged seven.
What is your next job? Reviving The Nose in Sydney, Australia.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Music.
What is your best piece of advice for auditions? Be authentic.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? An archaeologist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Absolutely not.
The basic inspiration for Bizet’s adaptation, suggests Kosky, comes from Jacques Offenbach, many of whose most successful operettas – such as La Belle Helene and La Vie Parisienne – had librettos written by the same team of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy.
“So please don’t scream, don’t give me that Latino macho quality – it’s got nothing to do with that. It has more to do with the French chanson and Parisian music hall than anything to do with Spain.”
When his production was first staged in Frankfurt in 2016, Kosky and the original conductor Constantinos Carydis considered the edition they would perform very carefully.
Bizet died three months after the opera’s first night in March 1875, and there had been many changes and rewrites during the rehearsals. Some of Bizet’s earlier thoughts found their way into the Frankfurt show and will also be in Covent Garden’s, where it will be conducted by Jakub Hrusa.
Adapting to these new sections will be a challenge to performers used to more familiar versions of the opera – many of the alterations are minor, but some are larger. One comic scene involving Don Jose’s fellow soldier Morales – often cut – will be reinstated early on in Act I, while musically the opera’s ending will be radically different from normal.
In addition, Bizet left two versions of one of the opera’s most famous numbers, Carmen’s Habanera – the standard one borrowed from the Spanish composer Sebastian Iradier, whom Bizet eventually credited in the score, having initially believed it to be a folk song.
But in Kosky’s show audiences will not only hear half of the familiar song, delivered by the protagonist at her entrance in Act I, but also Bizet’s earlier, discarded version, which will follow straight on.
Even more crucially, the director has replaced the entire spoken dialogue with a narration. “I have the music starting and stopping where it should, but in between I also have this unseen female voice – almost the voice of Carmen – telling the story.”
Kosky’s demands on performers also include a lot more dancing than usual. “The text is full of references to dancing and the score is full of dance rhythms, so I want to see dance. People who came to see it in Frankfurt said, ‘It’s like a musical, it’s like a dance show.’ And I replied, ‘That’s what it should be.’ ”
Given the novel experience of the piece he is providing, what does Kosky see as his cast’s biggest challenge? “To keep it light and playful. For singers who have been appearing in big houses in revivals of productions that are 20, 30 or 40 years old, it’s not easy to get rid of a load of stuff they’ve done before. But I don’t want it.”
Kosky himself is a huge admirer of the entire tradition of operetta, which Offenbach launched and which he sees as the major influence on Bizet: in Berlin he has staged regular productions of pieces by Offenbach, Kalman, Paul Abraham and Oscar Straus.
“The Offenbach shows are really hard,” says the director, who has staged La Belle Helene and next year will put on Orpheus in the Underworld in Salzburg.
“We need to understand how radical and revolutionary his pieces were – they were subversive, erotic entertainments. Theatres were packed by audiences who wanted to see parodies of power and privilege with incredibly subversive female roles involving half-naked dancers and a lot of the time with performers improvising.”
He says the work is authentic to the Komische Opera’s DNA, that in Germany and Austria operetta is still an important part of the repertoire and the house has always done it.
He concludes: “I love the challenge of combining text, dialogue, music and dance in a form that’s not a musical and at a pace that’s fast and virtuosic. People have to sing and dance and act and it has to be outrageous and sumptuous and opulent and ridiculous and crazy – much more akin to Dada than to pantomime.”
CV: Barrie Kosky
Born: 1967, Melbourne, Australia
Landmark productions: Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg, Bayreuth (2017), Saul, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (2015), Moses Und Aron, Komische Oper Berlin (2015), Fiddler on the Roof, Komische Oper Berlin (2017), The Fiery Angel, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich (2015), Macbeth, Oper Zurich (2016)
Awards: Olivier award for best opera production for Castor and Pollux (2012), Helpmann awards for best opera direction and best opera for Saul (2017)
Agent: Maxine Robertson Management
Carmen runs at the Royal Opera House, London , until March 16