Barrie Kosky is receiving rave reviews for his work as chief artistic director at Berlin's Komische Oper.
CULTURE-RICH Berlin has long been a lure for Australian artists and performers, but the vigorous antipodean connection has ramped up even more in recent months.
Directors Barrie Kosky and Lindy Hume, composers Brett Dean and Elena Kats-Chernin and conductor Simon Hewett, as well as a string of exceptional singers, have been cutting a swath through the German capital's music scene. Melbourne-born Kosky has been making the biggest splash, which won't surprise anyone acquainted with his style.
Of course, the bizarre, disproportionate abundance of opera houses and symphony orchestras - partly a legacy of the city's 40-year Cold War division into East and West - means there's greater scope for classical musicians, and the place has the distinct advantage of being a lot more affordable than other cultural capitals such as London, Paris and Vienna (and probably Melbourne and Sydney for that matter).
But the official appointment last September of Kosky as ''intendant'' (managing director and chief artistic director) of the Komische Oper means he will be able to leave a lasting mark on Berlin's cultural landscape and tradition. This successful and smallest of the city's three houses (which, like Britain's English National Opera, performs exclusively in the local language) has engaged Kosky regularly over the past several years and it has become a strong and fruitful relationship.
Never one to do things by halves, Kosky's opening bid as chief at the Komische made waves even in this blase, seen-it-all town. In a bold move he presented a 12-hour Monteverdi Trilogy.
The trio of operas were worked into new musical versions by one of Australia's most gifted composers, Kats-Chernin, collaborating closely with the company over a number of weeks. The event was dubbed a ''spectacular start'' to Kosky's stewardship by Die Welt newspaper and received astonished accolades from all sides despite its herculean length - although Berliners are quite acclimatised to epic opera, what with regular performances of Wagner's Ring cycle at the two larger houses down the road, the Staatsoper and the newer Deutsche Oper.
But it was Kosky's recent eye-popping production of Mozart's The Magic Flute that had audiences buzzing over the festive season.
Critics were falling over themselves to praise the stunning co-direction with British theatre/video artist troupe 1927, which saw Kosky synthesise a magical world of animation and silent film (breathtaking images of flying elephants, talking cats, and a spider-woman Queen of the Night) with great music and acting and first-rate singing. Deutschlandradio's Mascha Drost described it as ''something really special, the likes of which Berlin has never seen before''. Kosky, she says, ''is clearly going to bring some welcome razzle-dazzle to Berlin''.
The set was a screen, rather than a stage, on which the singers, dressed and coiffured 1920s style, were swung out metres above the stage floor to deliver their arias, as all the while the ingenious and witty graphics danced and wove around them.
In an inspired move, recitative passages were projected as text in the manner of silent film, rather than spoken.
The Deutsche Oper, located in city's west, has had a string of up-and-coming young Australian singers through its recent productions, including Alexandra Hutton, Siobhan Stagg and Jessica Pratt.
This company houses Berlin's biggest stage and audience capacity, and its production of Wagner's Ring cycle is legendary.
The DO's main rival, the 250-year-old Staatsoper, has had to move house to enable massive renovations, with many of its productions being trimmed accordingly to fit the smaller stage. One of these was Australian director Lindy Hume's much-loved version of Puccini's La Boheme, dating from 2001 and still playing to sold-out houses. Hume, who is now shaking up Opera Queensland as its new chief after completing a highly praised three-year stint as Sydney Festival director, was flown over along with set designer Dan Potra (of Sydney Olympics fame) to rework the production.
Just as Kosky's appointment comes, Australian conductor Simone Young has announced her intention to leave her dual position of intendant and musical director at Hamburg's State Opera in 2015 after what will be 10 years there. But Brisbane's Simon Hewett, now resident in Berlin, will continue on as principal conductor of the Hamburg Ballet and designated principal conductor at the Stuttgart Opera. Two more Australian artists based in Berlin will get the chance to bring their talents back home this year in the keenly awaited Melbourne production of Wagner's four-part Ring cycle in November. Miriam Gordon-Stewart will sing Sieglinde, a central role in The Valkyrie, and internationally acclaimed baritone John Wegner performs as the twisted dwarf Alberich, a role he made his own at Wagner's legendary opera theatre in Bayreuth.
Meanwhile, Kosky has committed to completely rejigging the repertoire and achieving higher audience capacity at Berlin's Komische - as hot a political-economic issue as in Australia, especially with the fierce competition from the other two houses across town.
While Lyndon Terracini at Opera Australia is putting a heavy emphasis on Verdi in 2013 for that composer's bicentenary year, Kosky has gone for less Verdi, Puccini and Wagner, but programmed a new Mozart cycle and included offbeat nuggets such as Stanislaw Lem's Solaris and a 1930s jazz operetta by Paul Abrahams that apparently features a song-and-dance routine called Everyone do the Kangaroo.
Berlin is to get a few more operatic surprises before the season is over.