Sunday Times obituary

Posted on 1st April 2018 Under Tributes

Johan Engels: Creator of improbable wonders for the stage

Top international stage designer Johan Engels, who has died in England at the age of 62, said the best piece of advice he ever received was never to give a director what he asked for. He never did, and the best opera and theatre directors in the world couldn’t get enough of him. The secret, he understood, lay in allowing them the illusion that the magnificent, fantastical, improbable sets that made every show such an occasion were what they had envisaged all along, their own imagination made flesh.

The truth, as even the most egotistical director knew, was that when it came to transforming anything, be it ballet, opera or a play, into an occasion, the South African was one of the best. As a director for whom he worked his magic on many a shoestring production said of him, Engels could make an occasion out of a poached egg. After breaking into the big time 30 years ago, he usually had rather more to work with. But whatever the size of his budget, his results always made it look considerably more generous.

Engels was born in Scottburgh on the south coast of Natal on April 4 1952. He grew up in Durban and went to Port Natal Skool. From an early age he loved drawing. Exhibitions of Tretchikoff’s work at Stuttafords fascinated him and for months afterwards he would draw lost orchids and roses with tear-shaped dewdrops. He was obsessed by the great epic films of the era and spent all his pocket money losing himself in the world of Ben-Hur and other 1960s biblical marathons.

He became equally transfixed by opera. The first he saw was La Traviata at Durban’s Alhambra, and when his family moved to Pretoria, Verdi’s Macbeth and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes sealed his fate, as he put it in an interview. He saw every opera and play put on by the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal and started building miniature models of all the sets. His one dream was to be a theatre designer. He studied fine arts and design at the University of Pretoria and worked extensively with PACT from 1975 to 1980. He also designed productions for the Market Theatre in Johannesburg — The Native Who Caused All the Trouble and Janet Suzman’s production of Othello among them — where budgets were tight and his challenge invariably was to make something out of nothing.

He left South Africa on what he thought would be a year’s sabbatical, spending three months each at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, Bayreuth and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. He never intended staying but after he designed small opera productions in London and some plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford he came to the notice of some big names. The director of the RSC, Terry Hands, asked him to design his farewell production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. This put him on the map. He designed all Hands’ productions all over the world for the next six years.

The legendary artistic director of the English National Opera, David Pountney, gave him a call and he ended up designing 30 productions for him, culminating in what was probably the most spectacular production yet of The Magic Flute at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in 2013 and 2014. A packed open-air auditorium of 7 000 people faced the stage as it floated on the Bregenz lake. He said it was his greatest technical challenge.

A production that engaged him more emotionally was the world premiere of an opera set in Auschwitz. The author had been a prisoner at the Nazi concentration camp for four years and would be in the audience. Realising the impossibility of putting Auschwitz on stage (“one can only suggest its horrific presence”) he was terrified how she might react. When he finished his design he asked if he could show it to her with only a Polish interpreter. He said he had never been so nervous. When she saw the model she started to cry. There was nothing specifically Auschwitz about it, she said, but the space reminded her of its horrors. He regarded this as one of his greatest compliments.

Engels designed for theatres and opera houses around the world, including Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, Poland, Italy, Britain and the US. He recently completed set designs for the entire Ring cycle by Wagner, which will run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago over the next five years. He was a master at sketching designs — often on a napkin or tablecloth during a raucous lunch — from the most fantastical, usually hilarious and improbable ideas, then making it all happen on stage. He was completely hands-on during the construction phase, never happier than when in the paint shop and workshop with the sculptors, engineers, builders, wardrobe people and wigmakers. He enjoyed the curtain calls and ovations of course, but the sweat and toil and problem-solving that went into what the audience saw was his true world.

He was brilliant at getting the best out of people to make the seeming impossible happen in the most intelligent way. His attention to detail was legendary. He was completely unforgiving of anything that was less than perfect.

His home base was a converted barn at the country house outside Bath in England of his close friend of 25 years or so, Pamela, Lady Harlech, formidable expat New Yorker and former chairwoman of English National Ballet. He asked if he could do something with it, sketched a typically exotic Raj-like design, which she adventurously approved, and he made it happen. His “folly”, as he called it.

For the past few years, Engels longed to spend more time in South Africa. He bought a studio house in Auckland Park and said he wanted to get involved in training, teaching and upgrading standards. He intended coming out for Christmas and was rushing to complete his hectic schedule for the year when he had a heart attack.

He is survived by his mother and two sisters.

© Chris Barron – Sunday Times; 23rd November 2014