Johan Engels

"You may be the most brilliant designer in the world, but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you’re lost"


Born in Scottburgh, Kwa-Zulu Natal on 4th April 1952, Johan dreamt of working in the theatre from a very young age. He went on to study fine arts, specialising in theatre design, at the University of Pretoria. Little did he know how far his ambitions would take him: the Royal Shakespeare Company, Vienna State Opera, Broadway, Opéra de Marseille, National Theatre of Norway, Bregenzer Festspiele …

He joined the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal (PACT) in 1974. He initially worked as resident designer and then as freelancer on numerous projects such as The Barber of Seville, Die Fledermaus, Major Barbara, Macbeth and The Sound of Music.

Johan first worked with PACT’s Ballet Company in 1975 when he designed the company’s productions of Romeo and Juliet and Vespri. The following year he designed new costumes for Swan Lake and in 1979 the costumes for Cinderella, a new Romeo and Juliet and the company’s first production of La Sylphide. AT PACT he worked with local designers such as Aubrey Couling, Neels Hansen, Raimond Schoop and Richard Cook.

For the Market Theatre he designed Lysistrata, Mother Courage, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of Bessie Smith, Children of a Lesser God and for the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), Die Fledermaus, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Merchant of Venice.

In 1979 Johan left South Africa for an extended study tour at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. He subsequently settled in London where his projects included Martha (New Sadler’s Wells Opera), Faust (Royal Opera House), Guistino (Handel Opera), Custom of the Country (RSC), Hay Fever (Royal Exchange, Manchester) and a new West End production of The Boyfriend. While in Europe he also designed the costumes for a new production of Rigoletto at the Maggio Musicale in Florence and was a member of the British stage design team represented at the Prague Quadrennial in 1983.

Whilst living in London he returned to work in South Africa, notably for PACT Opera’s productions of Andrea Chénier and Tristan und Isolde, as well as Elektra and L’elisir d’amore.

He returned to South Africa in 1986, where he again worked on several productions at the Market Theatre with Janice Honeyman and Robert Whitehead (As Is, Entertaining Mr Sloane, I’m not Rappaport), as well as the controversial production of Othello, with Janet Suzman directing John Kani in the title role. Johan was awarded a Vita Award for Best Design for As Is and for I’m not Rappaport, both directed by Honeyman.

In 1989 Johan accepted an invitation from The Royal Exchange Theatre for a series of plays and throughout the nineties he worked on a wealth of projects, most notably The Seagull, directed by Terry Hands for the RSC. Career highlights during this period include Wagner’s Ring for Opéra de Marseille, Beethoven Ballet and Spartacus for the Wiener Staatsoper Ballet, Aïda for the Cagliari Opera and Turandot, directed by David Pountney, for the Bregenzer Festspiele.

Never one to shy away from artistically demanding, sometimes controversial, and technically complex productions, Johan accepted the challenge of designing eight simultaneously running productions for Opera North’s 25th anniversary called Eight Little Greats: The Dwarf, La vida breve, Il Tabarro, Djamileh, Francesca da Rimini, Pagliacci, Love’s Luggage Lost and The Seven Deadly Sins. It was an outstanding accomplishment for the production team who had to ensure that each opera could be built or struck within a 30-minute interval.

On the lighter side of the performing arts scene, Johan was a trusted favourite of popular soprano Sarah Brightman. In 2000 he designed her costumes and set for for her La Luna World Tour as well as the hugely popular Harem World Tour in 2004. He was the production designer for her 1999 One Night in Eden World Tour and the 2008 Symphony World Tour.

During 2009, Johan designed the critically-acclaimed production of Artaxerxes for the Royal Opera (directed by Martin Duncan), L’elisir d’amore for Los Angeles Opera (Stephen Lawless, director) and Chorus! with David Pountney for Houston Grand Opera.

2010 saw productions in Poland and the Bregenzer Festspiele (Die Passagierin; with Pountney), New Zealand (Macbeth; Tim Albery), Germany (Les Troyens; Pountney), Sweden (Thaïs, with director Nicola Raab) and South Africa: The Boys in The Photograph, with Janice Honeyman, for which Johan was awarded the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Theatre Set Design.

The Passenger travelled to the English National Opera in 2011, in which year Johan designed Faust for Opéra National de Paris (director Jean-Louis Martinoty) and ORF TV’s Vienna New Year’s Day Concert.

2012 was another busy year: Mathis der Maler with director Keith Warner for Theater an der Wien (winner of the Golden Schikaneder Austrian Music Theatre Award 2014); Von Heute auf Morgen, Sancta Susanna, Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica (all for Opéra de Lyon; directed by John Fulljames and David Pountney), as well as director John Caird’s Don Carlos revival for Houston Grand Opera.

In 2013, Johan designed Opera North’s A Midsummer Night's Dream with Martin Duncan, the sets for Lulu in a Pountney co-production for Welsh National Opera and Prague National Opera (awarded the Theatrical Management Association’s “Achievement in Opera” award); Parsifal for Lyric Opera Chicago and director John Caird, Pountney’s acclaimed production of Die Zauberflöte for Bregenzer Festspiele and a revival of Nicola Raab’s Thaïs for Finnish National Opera.

With 2014 came Janice Honeyman’s Show Boat for Cape Town Opera, Raab’s Thaïs for Los Angeles Opera, The Passenger for Houston Grand Opera and Lincoln Centre New York, as well as a revival of the Bregenzer Festspiele Die Zauberflöte.

Johan’s untimely death on 7th November 2014 occurred while he was working on a series of productions, amongst which Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre’s West Side Story and the Ring for Lyric Opera Chicago.


Interview Adrienne Sichel

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© Adrienne Sichel – CLASSICFEEL April 2010

Anyone who has experienced any of his handiwork, whether it be for opera, ballet, theatre or television will never ask: Johan who? Adrienne Sichel catches up with a South African design wizard.

Although this scheduled 90-minute interview ran for over two hours, there still wasn’t enough time to catch up with Johan Engels’ international design career.
In typical unassuming fashion he describes how when he meets English design colleagues they carefully enquire if he is okay, since his work hasn’t been very prominent in Britain since the early 1990s when he was very busy with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He smiles enigmatically. The answer is he has had major opera and ballet projects (including Heinz Spoerli’s Cinderella, 2000) at the big houses and theatres in Vienna, Zurich, Berlin, Chicago, Prague, Los Angeles and so on. The Spoleto, Salzburg, Chichester, Bregenz, and Hong Kong Festivals are also on the list. Sarah Brightman’s World Tours in 1999 and 2000 allowed him to indulge in sumptuous theatrical spectacle. As did three editions of the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna (working with choreographers the calibre of John Neumeier and Heinz Spoerli) since 1996, which will be followed in 2011 by a fourth. In 2009 this sparkling televised show was designed by Valentino no less.

Johan Engels’ Opera North Shakespeare commission in 2008 won TMA (Theatre Management Association) awards for Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo et Juliette. More accolades beckon after the triumphant revival of Artaxerxes at Covent Garden in October 2009, for which he designed the sets and costumes. Martin Duncan (who also directed Dream for Opera North) staged this work by the prolific 18th Century composer Thomas Arne now only remembered for his Rule, Britannia! By Engels’ side was South African lighting designer Nic Michaletos with whom he worked intensively during his formative years at the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal (PACT). “We had an incredible success. Now they are talking about 2013.”

This remarkable success story began in 1971 when the Scottburgh-born policeman’s son and first year University of Pretoria art student met Janice Honeyman, “that funny woman on TV” (in the children’s show Bangalory Time). She asked him to design a South African nativity play she was staging at Die Masker Theatre on the university’s campus. Forty years and an enduring friendship later the two redheads are still sharing their creativity.

Janice Honeyman may now live in Pringle Bay and Johan Engels is based in Bath but distance has not prevented these artists, now with solid reputations behind their names, from sharing their synchronistic visions and making artistic whoopee. Their last big collaboration was the much-travelled Showboat for Cape Town opera in 2006. Now they’ve reunited for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Boys in the Photograph an official FIFA World Cup production produced by the Joburg Theatre.
The excitement and glee the director and the set designer exuded at the end of their breakfast meeting for Boys in the Joburg Theatre’s Newscafé this January signalled that they are up for the challenge. They are determined to impress the musical’s famous creators with their treatment of what started out as the mildly received The Beautiful Game (which neither Engels nor Honeyman saw). They will also be using all the imposing machinery and space which the Nelson Mandela main stage has to offer to tell this quite simple tale of a tiny football team in Belfast between 1969 and 1972 set against a massive socio-political canvas.
“We are just telling the story but it has to be gritty and real. Ben Elton’s jaw literally dropped”, recalls Engels “when he saw what we are doing” (during Elton’s visit to Johannesburg last year). “It’s literally filmic. If you’re clever you never have to stop for a scene change. That’s what we are working on.” Adds Honeyman: “When I asked, ‘Can we South Africanise The Boys in the Photograph?’ I got a definite ‘no’. Ultimately it’s so Irish.”

It’s been 30 years since Johan Engels, the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal resident designer (1975 – 1980) left the cocoon created by the anti-apartheid driven international cultural boycott to try his luck in England. He was determined to be the next big British designer in the mould of Ralph Koltai. He soon discovered that was a mistake. Being different was the key. He is proud of the fact that “People don’t recognise my work and say ‘Oh, that’s an Engels.’ Yes, I have never stopped being a South African artist because of my use of colour and space.”

He is indebted particularly to the late theatre director Francois Swart (whose exceptional work with the Afrikaans PACT Drama company he encountered as a 15-year-old schoolboy usher at the Breytenbach Theatre) for whom he designed a memorable African Elektra for PACT Opera. That experience stayed with him and subsequently informed his designs for a 1998 production of Electra, starring Zoë Wannamaker and Claire Bloom, at the Chichester festival, which transferred to London’s Donmar Warehouse and the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.

Another significant, enduring South African influence were the three years he spent back in Johannesburg (1986 – 1988) mainly working at the Market Theatre with his friends Janice Honeyman, the late film director Manie van Rensburg, and actors Robert Whitehead and Janet Suzman. “Those three years were like being in Paris in the 1930’s”, he elaborates nostalgically, recalling productions such as William H. Hoffman’s AIDS play As Is (directed by Honeyman) and the world premiere of Danny Keogh, Vanessa Cooke and Fink Haysom’s The Native Who Caused all the Trouble (directed by Whitehead and filmed by Van Rensburg).

His first big break in the UK was striking up a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s influential Terry Hands. Their first of about a dozen productions which toured the world was Chekhov’s The Seagull, in 1991. The following year, Engels’ designs for Tamburlaine the Great (featuring fellow South African Anthony Sher earned him an Olivier Ward design nomination for best costume).

Engels’ next important breakthrough was working with David Pountney (who was then at the English National Opera and is now intendant of the Bregenz Festival in Austria) on Pfitzner’s Die Rose vom Liebesgarten at the Zurich Opera in 1998. “We’ve done 18 productions together and we are working on three more. He’s an extraordinary man with a great intellect and musical and theatrical knowledge. He treats me as one of the team. That’s very important. Janice is my South African David Pountney.”

Every year Engels limits himself to four projects. Apart from Boys, 2010 brings him two Pountney stagings: Berlioz’s The Trojans, for the Deutsche Opera in Berlin and the world premiere of the eagerly awaited Die Passagierin, a true-life story set in Auschwitz and a passenger liner, in the Bregenz Festival Theatre (not on the lake which is a unique facet of this festival). His fourth and final project for the year will be Nicola Raab’s take on Massenet’s Thaïs for the Göthenburg Opera in Sweden.

The irresistible question is, isn’t he, like his compatriot William Kentridge, keen to direct an opera or anything else himself? “No!” is the vehement reply. “All my friends have my permission to put a gun to my head. It is so wonderful to have a good team. There’s nothing to beat five brains, and as a wily designer, the gift of getting the conductor on your side. They have incredible power.” As does Engels, who conquers audiences with his unflagging imagination, impeccable research and consummate artistry.

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Interview Christien Coetzee

© Christien Coetzee Klingler ClassicSA October 2012

Stage designer extraordinaire Johan Engels

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Johan Engels has designed extensively for opera, ballet, and theatre. After his studies in Fine Arts and Design at the University of Pretoria and he worked extensively for PACT, designing for Opera, Ballet and Theatre. Today he is one of the top international designers and his work has graced the stages of all the important opera houses around the globe. Recently this includes Faust for the Paris Opera; Weinberg’s The Passenger for the Bregenz Festival, Polish National Theatre, and English National Opera; Thaïs for Gothenburg Opera, to be revived in Helsinki and Valencia; Il trittico, Hindemith’s Saint Susanna, and Schoenberg’s From Today to Tomorrow at Lyon Opera; Hindemith’s Matthias the Painter at Theater an der Wien; and Lulu for Welsh National Opera. In 2013 and 2014 Engels also will design the sets for The Magic Flute, for David Pountney’s production at the Bregenz Festival.

Please tell us more about Johan Engels, the person – where did you grow up, where did you go to school?

JE: I was born in Scottburgh on the south coast of Natal. I grew up in Durban and had my schooling at Port Natal. I loved drawing from a young age and exhibitions at Stuttafords - of Trechikoff’s work - fascinated me and made me draw lost orchids and roses, with tear shaped dewdrops, for months afterwards. I was obsessed by epic films and spent all my pocket money at the old Playhouse and Cinerama cinemas, losing myself in the world of Ben Hur, El Cid and all the other Bible epics of the fifties.

When did the “theatrical” bug bite you?

JE: I saw my first opera, La Traviata, at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban and when we moved to Pretoria the next year, Verdi’s Macbeth with Renato Bruson and Joyce Barker. Britten’s Peter Grimes with Gert Potgieter sealed my fate. After that I saw every opera and play put on by PACT Opera and Drama (Performing Arts Council of Transvaal), and started building miniature models of all the sets I had seen. I had only one dream - to become a theatre designer, and that was final!

As a young designer, who were your mentors?

JE: A brilliant young costume designer, Aubrey Couling, was designing most of the costumes for PACT’s operas and dramas at the time. His work was of a standard that still shines today. He was a born theatre artist with almost no training, but with a natural instinct and flair for what worked on stage. His work on Francois Swart’s King Lear and The Merchant of Venice and the operas La Traviata and Don Carlos was ground-breaking. He was killed tragically in a car accident at the age of 27 and South Africa lost a great talent. I was first shown his drawings by Neels Hansen, my then lecturer at the University of Pretoria, another huge personality in my theatre education, who taught me everything I know about the passion for the theatre and design.

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Set for Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, directed by David Pountney for Welsh National Opera | Costumes for New Year’s Concert in Vienna

Also, Raimond Schoop, a German designer living in South Africa, was designing most of PACT Opera’s productions, including Frank Staff’s famous ballet Raka. He taught me an abstraction of reality that I admired greatly. But the 1970’s was a time of the neo-realism and it was at the hand of Richard Cook, the then resident designer at PACT that I learnt the most about set design. In later years the British designer Ralph Koltai became my mentor and a great influence, and I assisted him for many years.

You studied Fine Arts and Design at the University of Pretoria and worked extensively for PACT (Performing Arts Council) from 1975 – 1980, also designing some productions for the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Did you then leave South Africa specifically to pursue a career overseas?

JE: I always loved to travel and as a result I left South Africa for a year’s sabbatical to go and observe at four opera houses of the world: Die Deutsche Oper Berlin, Glyndebourne Opera Festival, Bayreuth and the Royal Opera House Convent Garden, where I spent three months at each. It was an extraordinary eye-opener and experience for me. I had every intention to return to South Africa, but somehow things started to work out for me abroad and I stayed on.

How did you get your “break” in Europe?

JE: I first designed small opera productions in London with young up-and-coming directors like Nicholas Hytner, Robert Carsen, Michael Renisson and several plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford. But it was when the then director of the RSC, Terry Hands asked me to design his farewell production of the Seagull at the RSC, that I was put on the map. I designed all Terry Hands’ productions all over the world for the next six years. Meeting David Pountney, the then Artistic Director of the English National Opera in 1998, was when my work with him in opera took off and this had an enormous influence on my work.

There are designers who believe that less is more. Your designs seem to lean towards “more is more”. What is your “philosophy” as designer, or does this vary from production to production?

JE: Every work of theatre or opera needs either more or less. The work dictates my style of “more-ness” or “less-ness”. A baroque opera by Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, which I designed for the Royal Opera House, demanded an opulence and extravagance that suited its music and its subject. Terry Hands’ production of The Cherry Orchard in 2010 asked for nothing more than a vast empty bleached white space, onto which only hints of a cherry orchard and a sweeping Russian summer landscape could be suggested. I have no style that is recognizably mine. I allow 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.

You are designing Die Zauberflöte for the Seebühne at the Festspiele in Bregenz in 2013. What are the challenges of designing for this huge outdoor venue?

JE: Bregenz is quite unique in the world as far as an opera in the open air is concerned. It consists of an auditorium that seats 7000 people that faces a lake in Austria. Its history is one that has a reputation of having had the most extravagantly huge set designs done by almost every famous designer in the world. Ironically enough, only one or two designers have managed to successfully solve the myriad of problems this stage on the water challenges you with. Stefanos Lazaridis, with his designs for Der Fliegende Holländer, Nabucco and Fidelio (with director David Pountney), managed to discover not only the correct scale of a design standing in nature, but also how to achieve scene changes with a set that in most cases is just a static sculpture in the middle of the lake. The Magic Flute asks not only for Papageno’s forest, The Queen of the Night’s domain and Sarastro’s Temple, but also for snakes, trials by fire and water, visions and above all Magic. To fit this all in on a watery stage is the greatest challenge I have ever been asked to tackle.

Have you decided on the look for the production?

JE: The Magic Flute will be my 30th production with artistic director David Pountney. We decided that for once we were going to tell the story of the Magic Flute as if for children. After all it is the work that introduces opera to most of German speaking children. So, as it has its roots also in my childhood imagination, it is going to be a very African Magic Flute. With gigantic animals and a floating tortoise as a stage with an inflatable forest on its back, we will try and bring as much magic to the work as it rightly deserves. With the first ever revolving stage on the Seebühne, we will create scene changes that will bring forth snakes out of the depths of the lake, The Queen of the Night floating in the night sky and creatures and animals that will hopefully enchant both children and adults.

How important is experimenting with new materials for a designer?

JE: For me new materials open up new ideas and possibilities. I am constantly noting down what I see happening in industry and technology. They say that nothing in the theatre is new, which is in some way true, but new materials allow you to make the old ideas look new. Advances in lighting, theatre technology and computer science are there for you to use, but only as a tool to make your life easier. Because theatre magic still lies, and will always lie rooted in the audience’s imagination - it can make you believe that bundles of cane and leather straps are horses that can breathe, neigh and gallop on stage, and make you cry with them when they die at the end, e.g. in the wonderful production War Horse.

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Set for Nielsen's Maskerade for the Bregenzer Festspiele and the Royal Opera House | Set for Weinberg's Die Passagierin for the Bregenzer Festspiele

Multi-media productions have been en vogue for quite a while. Do you think that audiences are getting tired of this?

JE: In my opinion the stage is not the place for multi-media designs. That is called a cinema - with all its advanced multi-image widescreen and 3D technology. The theatre audience feels cheated when projections do not look as good as in an IMAX Cinema. The theatre is a place for the imagination. Shakespeare, in Henry V Part I, tells us in words what we should be imagining on stage and we do. Everyone in the audience’s imagination is more vivid than anything I can put before them. My function as a designer is to merely suggest the dots of an idea, which the audience, each in his own way and experience, join up to see what they want the image to be.

Do you think multi-media productions really attract younger audiences – often the reasoning behind these production designs are that the director would like the production to “speak” to the new generation?

JE: I believe that it is sadly a lack of originality and ideas that make directors believe that multi-media attracts younger audiences. It is a misguided group of usually older directors who think that this is what it takes to engage a younger audience. Our younger audiences have devoured Harry Potter, booked out the National Theatre in London for War Horse, with our own Handspring Puppet Company’s brilliant horses. Shakespeare has “spoken” to every new generation over four centuries and time and again proved his plays remain relevant and topical. If you engage a child’s imagination in whatever way possible, you will “speak” to them.

In South Africa budgets often force designers to become very “creative”. Do you find the same is starting to happen in Europe, or are budgets still of a scale that gives you as designer free reign?

JE: All over Europe theatre and opera is also suffering from the economic pressure. But it is not necessarily a bad thing that we have to be more careful and creative in approaching a design project. The days of lavish sets and costumes are over, and even audiences have become saturated by the excess, which left very little to the imagination. We all cut our teeth in the “poor” theatre, which now comes in very handy, when we have to find simpler and cleaner solutions to a design. But designers always get the blame. It is a fact that what the audiences see at an opera production constitutes only 17% of the entire budget of the production - but we are always the first to have to brave the cuts.

What has been the most challenging design you have had to do up to date?

JE: David Pountney’s production of Mieczysław Weinberg’s “The Passenger” - premiered at the Bregenz Festival in 2010 - was the world premiere of a long-neglected opera, set partly in Auschwitz concentration camp. The author of the disturbing story, Zofia Posmysz, who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz for four years, is still alive. Firstly, it is impossible to put Auschwitz on stage; one can only suggest its horrific presence. Secondly, how was I to design a set for a production that will have Zofia Posmysz present in the audience? Once I had completed the design, I asked to present it to her alone (photo top), only with the presence of our Polish interpreter. I had never been so nervous in my entire life. When she saw the model, she started to cry. When I asked her why, she replied that even though there was nothing specifically Auschwitz about it, the space reminded her of its horrors. That was the biggest compliment I could ever have expected. Already performed in Bregenz, Warsaw and London, The Passenger travelled on to Houston, New York, Chicago, Tel Aviv and Copenhagen and is by far the most powerful work I have ever had the privilege to be associated with.

Of all the productions you have designed, which one has been your personal favourite?

JE: There are several, and usually they are the productions where the teamwork between actors, singers, designers and director were in perfect unison. Under these I must count my two Chekov productions with Terry Hands and Turandot (Salzburg), The Passenger (Bregenz) and Maskarade (Royal Opera House) with David Pountney.

What was the best advice you ever received as a designer?

JE: From Terry Hands from the RSC: “I hate designers who give me what I ask for.”