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Komische Oper’s new intendants on the future of Berlin’s opera house

As Komische Oper turns 75, new intendants Susanne Moser and Philip Bröking talk Barrie Kosky, relocation and why opera still matters.

Susanne Moser and Philip Bröking. Photo: Jan Windszus

You’ll be overseeing some of the biggest changes in the 75-year-old history of the Komische Oper, which is one of Berlin’s three main opera houses. What is the purpose of opera in 2022?

PB: It works like this: at a specific time, people come together, and there is a stage on which an orchestra, a choir and performers tell a story. Very simple – but to me, those two or three minutes before the show starts are the most exciting thing in the world. For the audience, of course, but also on stage where everyone is tense and excited. And this is something really archaic. It goes back to the Stone Age – people sit down and listen, and other people tell a story live. You can’t find that on the TV screen, in the cinema, or in a museum. It is an incredible thing and it will never go away.

To me, those two or three minutes before the show starts are the most exciting thing in the world.

SM: For me, opera is a Gesamtkunstwerk. There is music, theatre, artistic stage design – a bit of everything. Of course, we go to shows very frequently. And the thing that always surprises me is that every production of the same show is a little different. There is an interaction between the stage and the audience. I mean, going to the movies is also fantastic, but this is something different. There is a playfulness. Opera can really express complexity, even with very simple stories. And when people leave the theatre, they have experienced an emotional change. Nowadays, I think we hide our emotions more than ever before – whether it is grief, or joy or anything. And opera is an amazing opportunity to express these emotions.

You’ve both been involved with Komische Oper for a while – what lessons from your experience will you be bringing to this role?

SM: I’ve been here for 17 years as managing director, and Philip has been here even longer as opera director. That meant we both worked closely with the previous intendants Andreas Homoki and Barrie Kosky. And I’ve been lucky to see the opera house develop in really exciting directions in the last couple of years – in terms of audience numbers and the programme, and in terms of our international reputation and the number of guest performances from abroad. Philip and I have both been part of the strategic team during this process. Opera leadership is teamwork, as far as we are concerned. Plus, there is still some continuity – Barrie Kosky will stay as a director and put on two performances each year. No opera house in the world has that many Barrie Kosky productions – including us, up until now! That’s really super.

An evening with Barrie Kosky is not something that you forget easily.

PB: We really were a trio, together with Barrie Kosky, in recent years. And we are so lucky to still have him as a friend and professional adviser in our team. When he decided to leave as intendant, it was clear that he wanted to still work with the team. A strong bond has grown between Barrie and the Komische Oper in the last 10 years, so it just made sense for him to stay on.

Stepping into a position held since 2012 by one of Europe’s hottest stage directors is a hard act to follow. Can you speak a bit about Barrie Kosky’s legacy?

SM: As a director, he is simply unique. He’s also very diverse in his output – from modern operettas and musicals to the classical repertoire and Baroque-era operas. And he can do it all well! He can be humorous or deep. He can be minimalist or opulent. It is really impressive. An evening with Barrie Kosky is not something that you forget easily.

PB: The other important thing is that Barrie has an outsider’s perspective on Germany. Perhaps because of his roots as a Jewish man born in Australia, he is less concerned about this very German idea of distinguishing between certain types of art – and he’s been able to prove that it is unnecessary. He recognises that every production requires just as much strength and love, whether it is frivolous musical theatre or serious opera. And that really goes back to the roots of the Komische Oper, as a place where depth of meaning and broad entertainment can go hand in hand.

Komische Oper celebrates its 75th birthday this year, and there will be a gala in December to celebrate. How are you bringing its history into this celebration?

PB: The history of the Komische Oper was always directly connected to the history of the city of Berlin. Everything that has happened within these walls since 1947 has been a reflection of the city outside. The term ‘gala’ is maybe a little misleading – it is not just a night of musical numbers where Mr. So-and-so will sing the aria from so-and-so without context. Instead, we will tell the story of the history of the Komische Oper. For this purpose, we have engaged Axel Ranisch to produce a film for the gala that will be shown during the event. This will focus on telling the stories of those who have shaped and observed the 75 years of Komische Oper.

This opera house really is a wonderful place. Apart from anything else, the acoustics are extraordinary.

SM: We also wanted to remember the Komische Oper as it is now, on the occasion of the anniversary, so we have employed Candida Höfer – the grande dame of German photography – to take photographs of the current season and the way the opera house looks. This is also our gift to future generations of the opera house. And this opera house really is a wonderful place. Apart from anything else, the acoustics are extraordinary – there is hardly a seat in the house where you cannot hear, which is not the case everywhere! I’m thinking about the Burgtheater in Vienna for example – an amazing opera house, but there are a number of seats there where you simply can’t hear!

Komische Oper in 2019. Photo: IMAGO / Schöning

This is your final season in the current opera house on Unter den Linden for several years, as a large-scale renovation and expansion will begin in summer 2023. What is the plan?

SM: The renovation has been planned since 1999, so it’s been a long time coming, and now it is really urgently necessary – for safety reasons apart from anything else. It is not just a question of updating what exists, but also building a new space, also for community. So at the Glinkastraße side, there will be a new space with rehearsal rooms, workshop areas, and also a place where you can go and get a coffee, an art exchange. And as for the theatre space itself, we want to make sure the current mood and good spirits are retained.

PB: Yes, we want to bring the good spirits from the current opera house across to our temporary home in the Schiller Theatre in Charlottenburg! To do this we will have an all-night party next June before we say goodbye, for now, to the current building. It is also important to say that this renovation is a big statement from the city of Berlin – it shows how important they see opera and art for the city, for tourism and for the definition of the city.

We want to use spaces across Berlin to engage with audiences who don’t normally come to see our productions.

After all, tourist numbers are back to what they were before the pandemic. So we want to use this opportunity to rethink how and where we perform opera. The Schiller Theatre will be our main interim headquarters, but we will also use spaces across Berlin to engage with audiences who don’t normally come to see our productions.

While you are still in the current building – what are you looking forward to this season?

SM: Luigi Nono’s opera Intolleranza 1960 is a good example of what Philip was talking about, with rethinking opera: we have completely redone the whole theatre to build an icy landscape. In October there is a production of Pippi Longstocking we’re really excited about – then The Flying Dutchman for the first time here in the opera house since 1962.

PB: More generally, what you can expect when you come to the Komische Oper are impressive artists, high-quality set design and passionate performances.

Intolleranza 1960 at the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: IMAGO / Future Image

Susanne Moser (SM) has been managing director of the Komische Oper since 2005. Since beginning her career in her native Austria, she has sat on the board of Opera Europa and is currently chair of the German Opera Conference.

Philip Bröking (PB) has been opera director of the Komische Oper since 2004. Born in Wuppertal, he worked as opera manager and artistic director in Bremen and Lübeck before coming to Berlin.

Don’t miss out! Go see performances at the Komische Oper before it closes for renovation. Want to see what else Berlin has to offer? Check out this list of art exhibitions currently on or see our stage section.

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