Patrice Chéreau, Iconoclastic Opera Director, Dies at 68

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Patrice Chéreau, the opera director and filmmaker whose 1976 staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle became arguably the most important opera production of modern times, died on Monday in Paris at 68. The cause was lung cancer.  

Chéreau's varied career spanned film and television in his native France but it was a centennial production of Wagner’s Ring at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival for which he came to the public's attention. The then-30-year-old Chéreau tried something virtually unprecedented: he set the cycle in the Industrial Revolution, dressing the gods as capitalists at war with the Niebelung proletariat. The opening scene presented the Rhinemaidens as prostitutes cavorting around a hydroelectric dam on the Rhine.

The brashly modern, highly political production provoked a near-riot at its premiere; audiences protested the fact that it did not portray a German romantic, storybook world (Pierre Boulez also brought a modern sensibility from the pit). But over time the Bayreuth Ring was embraced as a postmodern landmark and a thoughtful allegory of man's exploitation of natural resources. It influenced countless directors and designers who have followed the path of so-called "Regietheater," or director’s theater.

Chéreau worked in opera sporadically over the following decades, at La Scala, the Salzburg Festival and the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and he made a late-career Metropolitan Opera debut in 2009, with a haunting production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. That work was set in a Siberian prison camp and featured spare, shadowy sets. This summer he directed a widely acclaimed production of Strauss’s Elektra at Aix-en-Provence, equally bleak and set entirely among towering courtyard walls. It is due to travel to the Met in 2015. 

Chéreau began his career directing theater in Paris, and added acting to his portfolio in the 1980s. His appearances included a small part in the film “The Last of the Mohicans.” He garnered many directing awards including a Cannes jury prize in 1994 for "La Reine Margot."

In a 1999 appearance on WNYC’s New York & Company, Chéreau said that he turned to film initially because he felt that theater and opera were incapable of addressing contemporary subject matter – "to speak from the world in which I’m living, or the people I’m meeting in the day.” The iconoclastic director added, “Theater has to do with the past, with the classic culture. I want to tell my own stories. Only a movie can give me that.”

(Audio courtesy of NYPR Archives.) Below is the opening to Chéreau’s Bayreuth Ring: