Hans Neuenfels, opera director with a pointed view, dies at 80

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Hans Neuenfels, opera director with a pointed view, dies at 80
A leading proponent of “director’s theater,” his productions had a provocative stamp that often provoked outrage.

NEW YORK, NY.- Hans Neuenfels, a German director and writer whose provocative, iconoclastic productions made him one of the pioneers of modern operatic stagecraft and the frequent target of audience and critical outrage, died in Berlin on Sunday. He was 80.

The cause was COVID-19, said his son, cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels.

Neuenfels was among the founding fathers, and arguably the leading exponent, of what came to be known as Regietheater, or “director’s theater,” in which the director’s vision tends to dominate the work.

He abandoned performance traditions to interpret operas in light of the present, and aimed to force audiences to engage with what they saw — which they often did with riotous booing. His style earned him the title of enfant terrible of the German opera world.

He came to prominence with a production of Verdi’s “Aida” for the Frankfurt Opera in 1981 that portrayed the enslaved heroine as a modern domestic servant — mop, bucket and all.

“Mr. Neuenfels’s notions can be inferred from the final duet,” John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote. The temple vault in which Aida usually died turned, in this “perverse but striking” production, into “the Egyptian wing of a museum that becomes a gas chamber.”

From then on, critics habitually accused Neuenfels of violating the works he directed, rather than shedding light on them.

Writer and composer James Helme Sutcliffe sputtered in Opera magazine that a “La Forza del Destino” by Verdi at the Deutsche Oper in 1982 was a “coldblooded murder,” an “atrocity” that represented little more than “a puppy rubbing its master’s nose in his own excrement.”

Little escaped Neuenfels’ critical eye. A former altar boy, he made religion a frequent target. In his staging of “Il Trovatore” in Berlin in 1996, Christ descends from the cross, his crown of thorns entwined with twinkling lights, to dance with colorfully dressed nuns.

Sexual imagery became graphic and inescapable, gratuitously so to some viewers. Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” in Salzburg in 2000 found sadomasochism latent in the drama; soprano Karita Mattila delivered her defiant aria, “Come scoglio,” holding leashes attached to men dressed in leather, chains and dog heads. His magic flute in Mozart’s opera of that name was a 3-foot phallus.

But Neuenfels’ interest in opera was genuine, and he developed a deep knowledge of it. He all but abandoned the straight theater of his training and early work for the opera house and the music that transfixed him, writing librettos for operas by Adriana Hölszky and Moritz Eggert and arranging his own “Schumann, Schubert and the Snow,” a chamber opera for the Ruhr Triennale in 2005 that set a fictional meeting of the composers to their songs.

“Each libretto mainly interested me in terms of information,” Neuenfels wrote in his 2009 book “How Much Musik do People Need?” “The main thing, I said to myself, is that it seduced the composer into music.”

Hans Neuenfels was born May 31, 1941, in Krefeld in northwest Germany, the only child of Arthur and Marie (Frenken) Neuenfels. He started writing as a child, and immediately had a capacity to shock.

“At the age of 9 I wrote my first poems and stories, which I read to my parents,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2013. “I remember my father running out of the room because he didn’t like my story.” He later published a novel and made several films.

Neuenfels studied at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen from 1960-64, and at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna, where he met actress Elizabeth Trissenaar. Frequent stage collaborators, they married in 1964, the year Neuenfels made his debut as a theater director in Vienna.

He had built a significant reputation by the time they jointly began an association with the Schauspiel Frankfurt in 1972, and he continued to prefer working freelance; a spell in charge of the Volksbühne, a prominent theater in Berlin, from 1986-90 was troubled by financial problems.

Neuenfels knew little about opera before his debut directing one (“Il Trovatore” in Nuremberg in 1974), he wrote in a 2011 autobiography, “Das Bastardbuch.” But during his cigarette-and beer-fueled preparations, he wrote, Verdi’s music “enveloped me, penetrated me, wove itself into me so that I was convinced it would run through my veins.” He saw no similar passion in the stagings he began to watch; they made opera a “senseless and purposeless undertaking,” he surmised, aiming for no broader relevance.

Neuenfels resolved to change that. Four productions followed for the Frankfurt Opera, a hotbed of radicalism in the 1970s and ’80s, including the infamous 1981 “Aida.” He also directed Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten” and Busoni’s “Doktor Faust,” showing an early taste for otherwise ignored dramas.

As sympathetic critics saw, there was a certain integrity to much of Neuenfels’ work, which became more apparent as younger generations of directors became more extreme still. Rockwell wrote in 2001 that a “Die Fledermaus” at the Salzburg Festival was “in poor taste” and a “seething nest of hypocrisy, cruelty, sexual perversion and incipient Nazism,” but granted that it was “at least seriously intended.”

Perhaps no production made Neuenfels’ underlying sincerity plainer than his rat-infested “Lohengrin” for the Bayreuth Festival in 2010, which, like the Patrice Chéreau “Ring” decades before it, was booed vigorously at its premiere but eventually became a beloved classic. At its last appearance in 2015, Times critic Zachary Woolfe called it a “model of operatic direction.”

Even when Neuenfels did not deliberately court controversy, though, it tended to find him.

His production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Deutsche Oper caused little stir at its premiere in 2003, despite his addition of an epilogue in which the title character pulled out the decapitated heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.

In 2006, however, the Oper canceled a planned revival. The Berlin police said the performances might pose a security risk because months earlier, a Danish newspaper had run caricatures of Muhammad, leading to worldwide protests.

The cancellation provoked weeks of debate and was condemned by Muslim leaders and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and an opera fan, who said that “self-censorship does not help us against people who want to practice violence in the name of Islam.”

Neuenfels refused to cut the scene. The performance was reinstated and passed without incident.

Neuenfels noted that the fiasco showed that opera had something to say. “It’s very good,” he told The Wall Street Journal, “that a government would be moved to comment on the situation, which says something about the role of opera and art in general.”

Along with his son, Neuenfels is survived by his wife and two grandchildren.

In his 2011 interview with Deutsche Welle, Neuenfels was asked whether he had to wrestle deeply with “Lohengrin,” a drama that often poses problems for directors.

Responding that his Wagnerian work had at one point been “almost ecstatic,” he reflected that “directing really takes you to the absolute limit — it’s almost impossible in a sense. But once you’ve gotten there, it’s a really magnificent and unique experience. Every staging should take the director to the brink of insanity.”

“And then,” he added, “comes the next one.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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