Kenza Koutchoukali: ‘Corona made me feel the more intensely that my passion lies in directing’

The financial damage caused by the corona crisis is immense, and the end is not yet in sight. The website Theaterkrant assembles the stories behind the figures in their series ‘corona practices’. How do freelancers manage? Do they still have work and income? For this series I interviewed director Kenza Koutchoukali, here’s my English translation.

During her studies at the Utrecht School of the Arts, Kenza Koutchoukali (Utrecht, 1988) already had the opportunity to gain practical experience at Dutch National Opera (DNO). For the education department she made an adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd with and for young people. From that moment she shifted her focus to opera, and in 2015 she started working as a freelance director.

Kenza Koutchoukali (c) Ben Kortman

A year later she directed her first contemporary opera, All Rise! by Jan-Peter de Graaff. In a talent trajectory of DNO in Amsterdam and Paris, she then assisted greats such as Pierre Audi, Claus Guth and Lotte de Beer. In 2018 she was assistant director to Romeo Castellucci in DNO’s production Das Floss der Medusa. The next year she joined the young makers of KASKO, where she can continue her development for two years. Her first project was a staging of the song cycle This is not a fairy tale by composer Anne-Maartje Lemereis.

When Rutte announced the closure of the theatres on 11 March 2020, Koutchoukali was working on a project for the 4th of May, when the Netherlands commemorate the end of World War II. ‘It was a production with a large choir and orchestra in Railway Museum in Utrecht, and it was clear straightaway this couldn’t go ahead’, says Koutchoukali. At the same time, I was preparing for my trajectory as master’s apprentice to Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper Berlin. When that was cancelled as well, I was actually relieved: I didn’t think it was sensible to travel to Germany when the situation was still so unclear.’

But the uncertainty weighed heavily, Koutchoukali admits. ‘Especially during the first month I worried about whether projects that were still in the development phase would ever take place. It felt pointless to keep working on them. On the other hand, I became restless because I felt the need to make things, but didn’t know how. After all, as a director I am always dependent on others; I cannot make an opera on my own. I can identify with the singer who wondered: ‘Do you still have a voice if you can no longer let it be heard?’

Like many people in the cultural sector, Koutchoukali considered seeking other employment: ‘In March I immediately started applying for jobs outside the performing arts. I even undertook an online course in digital marketing, and considered applying as a music teacher at a secondary school. But the point is: I want to direct, that’s where my full commitment lies. I would give up any job immediately as soon as Covid-19 was over, but then I would be letting a lot of people down.’

Although all productions were rescheduled, Koutchoukali did not immediately run into financial problems. ‘I had a small buffer, because just before corona erupted, I had assisted Monique Wagemakers in a production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Nederlandse Reisopera (Dutch Travelling Opera). The initiators of the 4 May project were kind enough to reimburse 1/3 of the fee of €5000. I didn’t get paid for the trajectory with the Komische Oper, but the costs I had already made – purchased scores, train journeys and such – were compensated.’

In April, a month after the outbreak of corona, she got a phone call from composer Jan-Peter de Graaff. ‘He told me that Opera Zuid (Opera South) had accepted his proposal to create eight online miniature operas as documentation of our times. Their intendant Waut Koeken had more or less given him carte blanche to realize them and Jan-Peter asked me to direct them. I was overjoyed. Now I had something to focus all my attention on in April and May.’

With this project, Bonsai Garden, she was able to safeguard a third of her monthly income. ‘But it yielded something more important than money, namely the chance to direct Goud! (Gold!). This new co-production of Opera Zuid and Dutch National Opera was planned for a later point in the season and would be directed by Waut. Because of the pandemic, Opera Zuid and DNO decided to move the production forward and I was asked to take over the direction. So in the middle of the corona measures I suddenly had a new production to prepare.’

Koutchoukali applied successfully for the compensation package offered by the Dutch government. ‘This certainly offered some relief, but I stopped the benefit after a month. My partner’s internet business had started to grow considerably precisely because of the pandemic, and it didn’t feel right to keep claiming something I no longer really needed. – I wouldn’t have been eligible for the consecutive benefits anyway.’

Koutchoukali is very aware of her fortunate situation: ‘Even before corona, I often realized how comfortable it is to work in the arts while being able to share your fixed expenses with someone who has a steady income. Thanks mainly to my boyfriend, I was able to continue to meet my monthly obligations while dedicating all my attention on directing. – In case the proverbial washing machine were to break down, he would simply buy a new one.’

Although a staging of Mozart’s Requiem with De Nederlandse Bachvereniging and a production with dance company MANIICO fell prey to the pandemic as well, Koutchoukali experiences the vicissitude concerning Goud! as the most disappointing. ‘The opera was to have its premiere in October for thirty people and an x number of children. But a week before the first performance our government decreed that only thirty visitors in total would be allowed to attend. The production was rescheduled for December, but on the 14th of that month Prime Minister Rutte decided to close theatres entirely. It’s incredibly frustrating, for a while I didn’t know where to direct my energy.’

The continuous uncertainty is not even the worst thing about the ever-changing measures, says Koutchoukali. ‘As a freelance director, I’m used to working with uncertainties, but I’m struggling with a dilemma. Before, I used to invite the whole world to everything I made, but lately I haven’t. I don’t want people to travel unnecessarily or take undue risks. A poignant paradox, because in doing so I am labelling my own work as “unnecessary”. I make things for an audience which I don’t dare invite, while deep down I’m convinced there’s no safer place than the theatre.’

Despite everything, she discerns a small spark of hope in the crisis: ‘Staying at home and missing the theatre intensely has made me feel more clearly than ever that directing is really what I want. When last summer I was able to rehearse once more I simply got high. In addition, I’ve had more time to pursue ideas. I am now going to concentrate full time on developing new projects, such as the Balcony Scenes subsidized by the Fonds Podiumkunsten (Foundation for performing arts).’

With a coy smile Koutchoukali concludes: ‘The good thing is, I notice that my plans get better with time.’

Liked my interview? A gift, however small, is welcome through PayPal, or direct money transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. Thanks!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Kenza Koutchoukali: ‘Corona made me feel the more intensely that my passion lies in directing’

  1. Pingback: Composer and pianist Anne-Maartje Lemereis: ‘When the tour of my song cycle was cancelled I felt like a 6-year-old whose birthday party is called off’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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