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Obituary: Johan Engels

Johan Engels was one of the most imaginative and admired stage designers of his generation, working extensively in theatre and opera throughout the UK, Europe, the United States, the Far East and in his native South Africa.

In an interview in 2012, he described his approach to designing as “allowing each piece to impose on me, through its music or its text, a style for which I design only as much or as little as is necessary”.

Born in Scottburgh on Natal’s south coast, he grew up in Durban and Port Natal, where an early love of art and a chance encounter with opera settled him on becoming a designer. During studies at the University of Pretoria, he began collaborating with Raimond Schoop on productions staged by the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal’s opera and theatre companies.

Other influences included Richard Cook, costume designer Aubrey Couling and Ralph Koltai, whose assistant he became for many years. While on a year’s sabbatical to Europe to observe the design departments of opera houses in Berlin, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, he began creating his own designs.

Moving to the UK in 1980, Engels enjoyed successful partnerships with the Royal Exchange, Manchester: Hay Fever (1985), Dolores Walshe’s In the Talking Dark (1989), The Idiot (1991) and Feydeau’s She’s in Your Hands (1994) – and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His productions there included Michael Hastings’ A Dream of People (1990), Terry Hands’ leave-taking The Seagull (1990), As You Like It (1992) and Olivier award-nominated costumes for Tamburlaine the Great (1992).

He worked several more time with Hands, including Arden of Faversham (Schauspielhaus, Zurich,1992), The Buffalo Bill Show (Recklinghausen Festival, 1992) and The Cherry Orchard (Clwyd Theatr Cymru, 2010).

At the Donmar Warehouse he designed Glengarry Glen Ross for Sam Mendes (1994) and Richard Strauss’s Elektra, a 1998 co-production with the Chichester Festival directed by David Leveaux that transferred to Broadway the following year.

Other Chichester credits included Durrenmatt’s The Visit, starring Lauren Bacall (1995), and Marguerite Duras’ Suzanna Andler, with Julie Christie in the title role, and The Admirable Crichton (both 1997).

For Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, he designed As You Like It and Amadeus (both 1991) and Romeo and Juliet (1994), before moving on to designing for the Wrestling School, the Almeida and Royal Court theatres.

Other theatre credits included Othello, directed by Janet Suzman for the Market Theatre, Johannesburg (1987), costumes for The Boyfriend (Albery Theatre, 1984), Troilus and Cressida (Theatr Clywd, 2005) and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Boys in the Photograph for Johannesburg’s Civic Theatre (2010).

He excelled on the broader canvas of opera, winning the Theatrical Management Association’s achievement in opera award in 2013 for Welsh National Opera’s Lulu and, earlier this year, the Golden Schikaneder Austrian music theatre award for Mathis der Maler at the Theater an der Wien.

Internationally in demand, Engels’ designs for the floating stage at Bregenz – including Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger in 2010 (seen at English National Opera the following year) and The Magic Flute (2013) – were particularly admired. His work was also seen in leading opera houses throughout Europe, Hong Kong and the US. He had recently completed designs for a new Ring Cycle to be staged by David Pountney for Lyric Opera, Chicago beginning in 2016.

For Pountney – with whom Engels collaborated on more than 20 productions over two decades, and who described him as an “artist with a superb aesthetic grasp and stunning visual flair” – he also created striking designs for Zemlinsky’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle for Zurich Opera House (2003), a season of eight short operas at Opera North in 2004 and Il Trittico with Opera de Lyon (2012). Next year, their Pelleas et Melisande will be staged at Welsh National Opera.

He also designed Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes for the Royal Opera House (2009) and next season’s Orphee ed Euridice for Scottish Opera.

Johan Engels, born on April 4, 1952, died from a suspected heart attack, aged 62, on November 6.

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