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“Aesthetic Ideas”: Mystery and Meaning in the Early Work of Barrie Kosky

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Part of the Global Germany in Transnational Dialogues book series (GGTD)


In this chapter I invite the reader to consider the philosophical assumptions which underpin the early career aims and objectives of Barrie Kosky. A focus will be his “language” of opera, and the processes by which the audience is prompted to interpret it. The result will be to see how Kosky creates mystery and meaning while avoiding fantasy and escapism; and can express psychological truth while stimulating subjective interpretations. The point will be to show that Kosky’s oeuvre demonstrates a central concept in the Kantian tradition of aesthetic theory regarding the key process in creative expression, and that is the evocation/communication of “aesthetic ideas”.

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  1. 1.

    Roger Howell, who played Figaro in Kosky’s (1990) opera production of The Barber of Seville for the Victorian State Opera, refers to Kosky’s work as what he and others have called a concept-production. This is where images and symbols drive the action rather than the conventional narrative. See Prain (1990).

  2. 2.

    Craven quotes from his interview with Kosky in which they discussed Kosky’s upcoming treatment of Malcolm Williamson’s The Growing Castle (a musical version of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play ).

  3. 3.

    In an interview (O’Neill 1989) Kosky explains that “opera ought to do more than produce the effect of warm bolognaise sauce poured down the fronts of the audience”.

  4. 4.

    Thanks to the editor John Severn for pointing this out and for other helpful suggestions here.

  5. 5.

    Directed by Kosky for the Melbourne Spoleto Festival in 1989 when he was twenty-two years old, at The Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, from September 14–30.

  6. 6.

    Kosky directed The Dybbuk in Melbourne in 1991 for the Gilgul Company (a Jewish theatre company he established in Melbourne in 1990).

  7. 7.

    Kosky was discussing his upcoming production of The Golem , which was opening in Sydney (1993). In the interview the dominant themes were realism and imagination.

  8. 8.

    Kosky directed King Lear in 1987 for Treason of Images , a theatre company he set up at the University of Melbourne. Kosky played the role of King Lear while directing the production. He was also the designer and played the piano for the production. Kosky directed another production of King Lear for the Bell Shakespeare Company and Queensland Theatre Company in 1998.

  9. 9.

    This was also the first opera to feature a homosexual couple (and an inter-racial one at that). Thanks to the editor John Severn for pointing this out.

  10. 10.

    For a discussion of this in more contemporary terms see McMahon (2014), pp. 152–56.

  11. 11.

    For non-Western aesthetics, see entries for “Arab aesthetics”, “Japanese aesthetics”, “Indian aesthetics” etc. in Kelly (ed) (2014).

  12. 12.

    Thanks to the editor James Phillips for this observation.

  13. 13.

    For further discussions of repetition in Kosky’s Australian theatre productions, see Charlotte Farrell’s work in Chap. 5. See John Severn’s analysis of Kosky’s Bayreuth staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Chap. 9 for examples of repetition in Kosky’s operatic work.

  14. 14.

    Thanks to the editor John Severn for raising this point about the expertise of the opera critics at the relevant time in Melbourne.

  15. 15.

    For extended discussions, analysis and contextualisation of Kosky’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, see Michael Halliwell’s work in Chap. 8 and John Severn’s work in Chap. 9.

  16. 16.

    References to Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment use the standard citation format for Kant’s works, based on the Akademie Edition (1902–1938). In this standard referencing system, the citation CJ AK 5: 228, §15, for example, refers to section 15, paragraph 228 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment in volume 5 of the Akademie Edition. Direct quotations from the Critique of the Power of Judgment are from Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews’ translation in Kant (2000).

  17. 17.

    For an account of aesthetic ideas in contemporary terms, see McMahon (2007).

  18. 18.

    Kosky’s production of Carmen for Frankfurt Oper (2016) and the Royal Opera House, London (2018) included Carmen dressed in a gorilla costume and his 2005 production of The Marriage of Figaro for the Komische Oper Berlin included a monitor showing an octopus. Thanks to James Phillips for providing this latter example. Many of Kosky’s operas deal with the ability of the person to transform within a context of opposing dispositions. For example, his interpretations of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (Melbourne Spoleto Festival 1989), The Magic Flute (Adelaide Arts Festival 2017, original Komische Oper Berlin 2012 (as Die Zauberflöte)), Eugene Onegin (Edinburgh Festival 2019, original Komische Oper Berlin 2016 (as Jewgeni Onegin)), to name a few.

  19. 19.

    For more on beauty relevant to this discussion, see McMahon (2020).


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I would like to thank certain people and organisations for providing me with documents and access to videos. Claudia Funder (Arts Centre Melbourne) provided documents and other information from the ACM Kosky archive; Lesley Newton (Adelaide Festival Corporation) acquired access to The Magic Flute recording from the Komische Oper Berlin; Liz Hawkins (Adelaide Festival Centre) provided relevant contacts; the photographers Jeff Busby and John Gollings gave permission to reproduce their photographs; and Claudia Funder (Arts Centre Melbourne) provided the images; my Melbourne friends Peter and ’Vonne Greenberg shared many recollections, links and references concerning Barrie Kosky’s early and more recent work. Finally, I would like to thank the editors of this volume, James Phillips and John Severn, for detailed comments and helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this chapter.

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Correspondence to Jennifer A. McMahon .

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McMahon, J.A. (2021). “Aesthetic Ideas”: Mystery and Meaning in the Early Work of Barrie Kosky. In: Phillips, J., Severn, J.R. (eds) Barrie Kosky’s Transnational Theatres. Global Germany in Transnational Dialogues. Springer, Cham.

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