Jürgen Flimm, director of festivals and opera houses, dies at 81

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Jürgen Flimm, director of festivals and opera houses, dies at 81
Jürgen Flimm, director of the Salzburg Festival, seated in the new concert hall at the Morgan Library in New York in November 2007. Flimm, who led some of Europe’s most important theaters, opera houses and performing arts festivals over the last 40 years, died on Feb. 4, 2023, at his home in Wischhafen, Germany, northeast of Hamburg. He was 81. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times).

by A.J. Goldmann

NEW YORK, NY.- Jürgen Flimm, who led some of Europe’s most important theaters, opera houses and performing arts festivals over the past 40 years, died Feb. 4 at his home in Wischhafen, Germany, northeast of Hamburg. He was 81.

His death was announced by the Berlin State Opera, where he had been general manager from 2010-18. His wife, film producer Susanne Ottersbach Flimm, said the cause was heart failure following pneumonia.

Flimm’s Berlin appointment was his last in a long career that also included directorships at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, the Ruhrtriennale festival in northwestern Germany and the Salzburg Festival in Austria. He also staged Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 2000.

He directed acclaimed productions outside the German-speaking world as well, including at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Jürgen Flimm was born in Giessen, Germany, on July 17, 1941, to Werner and Ellen Flimm, who were both doctors. His family had fled there after bombs began falling on Cologne, where they had been living, and where they resettled after the war.

In a 2011 interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Flimm recalled his childhood. His father was a surgeon who, Flimm said, used the family’s apartment to see patients: “Every morning I put up my bed and our living room became a waiting room: patients everywhere.” His mother was a general practitioner, but like so many German women in the immediate postwar period, a time of general deprivation, she scrounged to bring home butter and meat. As a child, Jürgen sold old newspapers to fishmongers.

While his older brother, Dieter, played drums in jazz bands around the city, Jürgen invented dialogue for his puppets in the attic. Dieter Flimm eventually founded an architecture studio and worked as a set designer and a musician. He died in 2002.

Their father, who loved theater, would attend performances as a doctor on duty, and Jürgen often accompanied him. “I secretly hoped that an actor would get sick, so I’d be able to go backstage and see what went on there,” he said, although his father disapproved of his sons’ artistic proclivities and would have preferred they study medicine.

Jürgen enrolled at the University of Cologne, where he studied theater, German literature and sociology. He abandoned his studies to become an assistant director at the Münchner Kammerspiele theater in Munich, where he worked from 1968-72. He received an acting degree from the Theater der Keller in Cologne.

In 1969, Flimm married actress Inge Jansen, a colleague at the Kammerspiele. The marriage ended in divorce, but Flimm remained close to Jansen’s five children from her previous marriage, four of whom are still living. Jansen died in 2017.

Flimm married Susanne Ottersbach. The couple lived in a two-story thatched house built in 1648. She is his only immediate survivor.

He directed his first production at a theater in Wuppertal in 1971 and held positions at theaters in Mannheim and Hamburg in the 1970s, while also building up his resumd as director in Zurich, Munich and Berlin.

He directed his first opera in 1978, the German premiere of Luigi Nono’s 1975 “Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore” in Frankfurt. The work remained dear to Flimm’s heart: Decades later, he programmed it, in an acclaimed production by British director Katie Mitchell, in both Salzburg and Berlin.

In 1979, Flimm returned to Cologne to lead the city’s main theater, the Schauspiel Köln. During his six years as artistic director there, he programmed works by influential choreographer Pina Bausch and fanciful French-Argentine director Jérôme Savary.

Flimm moved to Hamburg in 1985 to lead the Thalia Theater, which he is widely credited with putting in the international spotlight by inviting avant-garde artists such as American director Robert Wilson.

In 1990, Wilson’s “The Black Rider,” a collaboration with singer-songwriter Tom Waits and author William Burroughs, became the most lauded production of Flimm’s tenure in Hamburg. Despite some famously sour reviews (German magazine Der Spiegel likened it to “a version of ‘Cats’ for intellectuals and snobs”), it was a hit and toured worldwide.

Flimm left the Thalia in 2000. That summer, his “Ring” cycle had its premiere at Bayreuth.

“It is impossible to guess how Wagner might have reacted,” critic Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker, “but the shock was considerable.” While praising some aspects of the cycle, Ross concluded that it ultimately left a very mixed impression.

“The production felt unfinished,” he wrote, “and the flurry of painted curtains during the ‘Götterdämmerung’ apocalypse suggested that in the end it had simply run out of money.”

Flimm made his Metropolitan Opera debut with Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” that October. This time, Ross raved, concluding his review by saying that “Flimm is a smart director, and the Met should give him anything he wants.” The production was revived three times between 2002 and 2017.

Flimm’s follow-up at the Met, a 2004 production of “Salome” that was a vehicle for Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, was more polarizing. In his review for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini noted that Flimm received some loud boos on opening night. But, he noted, “the bravos won out, and rightly so.”

In 2005, Flimm became artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, a multidisciplinary arts festival in the rust belt of Germany. He stayed an extra summer past his three-year contract after his designated successor, German theater director Marie Zimmermann, took her life in April 2007.

His time there dovetailed with the start of his artistic directorship at the Salzburg Festival, where he had previously served as head of drama from 2002-04. During his first summer, he commissioned a new staging of “Jedermann,” the morality play that is the festival’s oldest tradition, from young Bavarian director Christian Stückl. The production was a hit and remained a festival mainstay for a dozen years.

Flimm ascended to the festival’s leadership in 2007. It was a tumultuous time: Gerard Mortier had taken the festival in a radically new direction throughout the 1990s, and after his departure in 2001, it had struggled to hold on to an artistic director.

The four seasons Flimm spent as Salzburg’s leader were regarded as successful artistically, but he made clear that he was not interested in staying for the long run. In 2008, he announced that he would step down at the end of his term to head the Berlin State Opera.

In September 2010, shortly after Flimm arrived in Berlin, four steamers sailed down the river Spree, conveying 500 members of the opera company westward to the Schiller Theater, where it planned to spend three seasons during renovations to its historic home. Instead, the construction dragged on for seven years.

Flimm imported a number of acclaimed productions to Berlin that had first been seen at Salzburg. One of his original productions in Berlin was a 2016 staging of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” which featured an abstract set designed by Frank Gehry that reportedly cost 100,000 euros.

In addition to his work in theater, Flimm taught at the University of Hamburg and was a guest lecturer at Harvard and New York University. Among his many honors was the Bundesverdienstkreuz, the German government’s highest, which he received in 2002.

In a 2011 interview with Bavarian radio station BR, Flimm was asked what accomplishments he was particularly proud of. Among those he mentioned was his 2000 “Fidelio.”

“After the premiere,” he said, “I stood on the balcony of the Met, looked out into Manhattan and thought to myself, ‘Not bad, Jürgen!’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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