Patrice Chéreau, Iconoclastic Opera Director, Dies at 68

Audio: Patrice Chéreau on WNYC's 'New York & Company' in 1999

Monday, October 07, 2013 - 05:44 PM

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:

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Comments [7]

Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

It is,perhaps,fitting that the funeral service for Chereau took place at Saint-Sulpice,an important location in "Manon".His Ring production,which to some extent followed the reasoning of "The Perfect Wagnerite" by G.B.Shaw,led to greater excesses of Regietheater by other directors,and was first complete "Ring" presented on American television.

Oct. 17 2013 11:11 AM

@ Robert Poda: "... although when presented on the small screen TV presentation a few years later we liked it better in [that] format."

Hmmm. Maybe this means that a (sound) recording would be preferable to sitting through a live production? It brings up the question again -- music? Or drama/stagecraft? -- DD~~

Oct. 09 2013 01:32 AM
Robert Poda from New York

A postscript to my earlier post: In 1977, when my wife and I saw Chereau's production of the Ring Cycle, it was considered very controversial and we did not much like the production ourselves, although when presented on the small screen TV presentation a few years later we liked it better in that format. It is interesting to hear it is now considered a "Classic Production" by some today - probably because of some of the awful productions of the Ring that have come since, including the Bayreuth production this past Summer.

Oct. 08 2013 12:05 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I had the misfortune to see that Ring production. Real crap. The Met's newer Ring is just as bad.

Oct. 08 2013 11:33 AM
Robert Poda from New York

Sad to hear of Chereau's passing. In 1977, my wife and I were in Bayreuth to see Chereau's Ring Cycle, as well as other operas at the festival. On the night of Siegfried, the tenor, Rene Kollo, who was to sing the title role had injured his leg and could not perform. Chereau agreed to act the role on stage, while Kollo sang from the orchestra pit. It was quite a experience. We also found his House of the Dead production a few years ago at the Met a very moving and riveting experience.

Oct. 08 2013 11:21 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Although one may argue that disregarding the librettists' and opera composers' intentions may be alright in giving expression to a whole new angle, view, I still, nonetheless, respect the point of view he expressed. As an opera composer myself, I instinctively am suspicious that my work MIGHT be appropriated as a prop for just plain sensationalism as was done with the MET OPERA's RIGOLETO. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer [SHAKESPEARE and THE POLITICAL SHAKESPEARE] and director of The Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where all the Wagner and all the Shakespeare roles are taught as well as vocal technque for singing and declamation. www.WagnerOpera.com; www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com

Oct. 08 2013 09:47 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

How sad. Chereau's Ring was the perfect example of what can happen when one genius interprets the work of another genius. It was the most human -- and humane -- Ring, filled with compassion, irony, cynicism and the odd spot of humor.

Oct. 08 2013 07:10 AM

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