Christoph Schlingensief, the German stage director who scandalized conservative Wagnerians with a rotting hare at the Bayreuth Festival, died on Aug. 21 of lung cancer, aged 49. The media-savvy provocateur had been diagnosed with the illness in early 2008.
The worm-riddled image appeared in his 2004 staging of “Parsifal,” and incensed those who thought Wagner’s epic about redemption deserved a nobler image than a dead Easter bunny.
Born in 1960 in Oberhausen, Schlingensief studied German, philosophy and art history in Munich before turning to stage and screen with a vengeance.
Schlingensief’s films carried titles like “100 Years of Adolf Hitler” and “The German Chain-Saw Massacre.” His art actions were whimsical and politically inspired. He asked all six million unemployed Germans to jump into Austria’s Lake Wolfgang to flood the favorite holiday town of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In 1997, he was arrested at the Kassel Documenta art exhibition for titling a work “Kill Helmut Kohl.”
Incredibly, he almost won funding from Deutsche Bank AG for a performance piece titled “Save capitalism, throw the money away!” in which he intended to fling 100,000 deutsche marks from the roof of the Berlin Reichstag.
Always superb at self-promotion, Schlingensief made sure that his battles with the Bayreuth establishment received as much publicity as the show itself with its prominent voodoo component and naked African women. He disappeared during rehearsals, only to resurface still complaining about festival director Wolfgang Wagner and what he called his authoritarian manner. He traded insults with tenor Endrich Wottrich, who complained Schlingensief had no idea what he was doing.
In a bizarre denouement, he told the press, “Bayreuth will give me cancer.” Four years later, the non-smoker learned that his prediction had come true.
Schlingensief’s public battle with lung cancer was self-referential, irritating, and also moving. Few who saw his late works will forget the hospital beds he set up in Arthur Honnegger’s oratorio “Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher” at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. Or the broken sounds of the director’s voice emanating from recordings that were central to another performance he staged at the Ruhrtriennale after the removal of one lung. He titled it “A church for the fear of the foreign within me.”
During his illness, he published a diary of his reflections titled “Heaven could not possibly be as beautiful as here,” married costume designer Anio Laberenz, and founded a controversial opera project in West African Burkina Faso that received funding from the German government.
Schlingensief never stopped planning for the future. At the time of his death, he was involved in productions for the Ruhrtriennale and for the Berlin Staatsoper’s new season.
The death notice on his Internet page, asks for donations to the African opera project in lieu of flowers. For further information, see http://www.schlingensief.com.
(Shirley Apthorp is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)